Sometimes when I read I just want to be mindlessly entertained. I get tired of analyzing brilliance and working what Poirot calls “Ze leetle gray zells,” or what high-brow publications call literature. A little violence. Sex to the breaking point. A plot that dares me to put the book down.
But, mindless does have its limits. Please don’t make me suffer through TV shows of endless teenage angst, or sports show experts who’ve already used their ration of live brain cells and are working on the dead ones.
Yes, there are books that stoop to the same level of ignorance. Here’s an example:
“He walked into the house, carrying a large bag. It was almost too heavy and he didn’t want to carry it, but he carried it into the house. It was not a large house, but the bag was not as big as the house. “
Ok. Got that. Big bag. Carried it into the freaking house! Now, move it along, Jo-Jo.
I’m broadminded, but willing to shoot and dismember the man who wrote that and his brain-damaged editor. I may keep it up, Torquemada style, until the entire editorial staff confesses to long-standing love affairs with Alsatian Wolfhounds.
No. When I say mindless, I’m talking about well-placed sentences that easily lull me into enjoyment. Pleasant and effortless. A book I can read, while sitting on the beach with a large and juicy tumbler, almost toxic with alcohol.
Gotta have prose that flows. Gotta have characters that don’t make me want to fling the book against the wall. Gotta have a plot that grabs me in a vulnerable portion of my anatomy and makes me scream for the next page.
Is that so hard? Not for Phillip Kerr, in his mid-1930s trilogy, Berlin Noir. The three book package takes the reader through Germany during the rise of the Nazis, into the heart of the war era, and forward to the uneasy peace that followed.
Bernie Gunther is a former Berlin policeman who got fed up with having to choke down the Nazi bile and went out on his own as a private detective.
Takes some careful treading to solve a crime when the streets already run red with blood, and concentration camps overflow. You have to be careful whom you question and which questions you ask. And, you damn sure better watch your back.
The heart of these novels are not the crimes per se, although Kerr’s plots drive things at the speed of heat. The real guts of these mysteries are the interweaving of three societies and how everyone is affected by the turmoil and change.
Society One: March Violets. The Nazis taking over, enforcing new rules, with raw vengeance. Gives you a glimpse of how the Nazis were anything but a cohesive group. Thugs and warlords here and there vied for political favor and the attention of the dictator. If someone patted you on the back, best to make sure he didn’t have a knife in his hand. To do one high official a favor was to piss another official off.
Society Two: The Pale Criminal. Germany is at war. Still, the intrigues continue, along with the crimes. Shortages of almost everything turn everyone into a suspect, all for their own reasons and needs.
Society Three: A German Requiem. The war is over, or is it? America and the so-called allies jockey for power in a Germany that is now a vacuum. Renegade Nazis scurry into the shadows, but still pull invisible strings. No one trusts anyone and even within the same nationalities, intelligence services guard their territory like rival gangs, exposing little, hiding much. Russian, American, and Germans tangle in a web of power and deceit.
Through all of it, Bernie Gunther has to make his living, solving crimes, getting the information he’s paid to get, keeping his soul intact and his head above water. It’s not enough to merely follow the trail, ask the questions, and get the answers. He finds people want to use him and his services for their employers, for own their countries, and especially for their own purposes.
Bernie has to find the cheese, but he’s not only in a room full of mousetraps, but he’s often the mouse.
I’ve had it with wishy-washy novels where everyone is equally guilty and “who can really judge?” Give me some solid villains and at least one guy who’s a straight shooter. If he bends the rules, it’s only because it’s best for everyone. If he kills, he has a reason. And don’t give me this ‘gone rogue’ bullshit. Bernie is a man and a great detective. If he walks a fine line, so much the better. He trusts few, but believes in himself.
My kind of guy. My kind of detective. My kind of books. The Berlin Noir trilogy connects the dots, from the rise of the Nazis, to the war, and into the raw beginnings of the cold war. Puts you in the middle of it all. Makes you feel as if you lived in Berlin through some of the most vicious times of the last century.
When you finish reading Berlin Noir, you’ll be searching for Philip Kerr’s other Bernie Gunther novels. He’s a man with a gun and a mission to bring the light of truth into the darkest of corners. If he’s lucky, he won’t get himself killed.