A QUIET FLAME by Philip Kerr

Book Quote:

“But most of all I blame myself.  I blame myself for doing nothing…..  which was all that was required for Nazism to succeed.  I share the guilt.  I put my survival ahead of other considerations.  That is self-evident.  If I was truly innocent, then I’d be dead.”

Book Review:

Review by Eleanor Bukowsky (APR 21, 2009)

Philip Kerr’s A Quiet Flame moves back and forth between Argentina in the fifties and Berlin in 1932. The narrator, Bernhard Gunther, has seen it all, and for the most part, what he has seen makes him sick to his stomach. Before the war, Bernie was a wisecracking and insightful Berlin detective, who had a front row seat from which he witnessed the human drama of Weimar Germany at its most decadent: sex for sale for every taste, no matter how perverted; the transformation of ordinary Germans, such as his sergeant and army buddy, Heinrich Grund, into National Socialists spewing anti-Semitic venom; and the grisly murder of a disabled young girl, Anita Schwarz, whose mutilated body was found dumped in Friedrichshain Park. Although the police interviewed the friends and relatives of the victim, they came up empty, and no suspects were taken into custody.

Fast forward to 1950. Bernie and two other German passengers steam into their new home, Buenos Aires, aboard the SS Giovanni. Bernie is always ready with a quip (no matter how tasteless). He notes that the capital city “got started as a place where cattle from the Argentine pampas arrived by train and were slaughtered on an industrial scale.” He points out wryly, “So far, so German.” Bernie has no illusions about his status: “My two friends and I called ourselves refugees, which sounds better than fugitives. But that’s what we were.” With false passports, each man has a new identity. Bernie’s alias is Dr. Carlos Hauser, Adolf Eichmann is Ricardo Klement, and Herbert Kuhlmann, former Obersturmbannfuhrer in the Waffen SS, is Pedro Geller. Shockingly, the Argentineans “didn’t care who we were or what we’d done during the war.”

This is a mesmerizing thriller that tears at the heart and mind of the reader. Gunther is a superb narrator who takes in everything, as if he is filming each event. This reminds us that John Van Druten’s 1951 play, “I Am a Camera,” was based on Isherwood’s “The Berlin Stories” and served as inspiration for Cabaret. Through Bernie’s sharp eyes, we see the weakness of the German politicians who helped make the rise of Nazism possible, the collusion of the German populace who, thanks to Hitler and his followers, at last had an outlet to express their virulent hatred of the Jews, and the depravity and corruption of the Peróns who gave escaped Nazis safe haven for a price. Bernie, who bears no prejudice against any group, has an impertinent attitude towards those in power, and he endangers himself time and again by forgetting to keep his big mouth shut.

A Quiet Flame offers a disturbing portrait of Juan and Evita Perón, shameless opportunists and exploiters who enriched themselves by taking booty from the Nazis who, in turn, stole it from the millions whom they slaughtered. Perón’s right hand man, Colonel Carlos Montalbán, blackmails Bernie to work undercover on his behalf. Gunther’s mission is to locate fourteen-year old Fabienne von Bader, the missing daughter of a prominent banker. This case gives Bernie an opportunity to revisit the death of Anita Schwarz and to stick his nose into a number of places where it most assuredly does not belong. Being curious and tenacious by nature, Bernie goes way beyond his job description, putting both himself and Anna Yagubsky, the woman whom he has grown to love, in grave peril. Bernie digs deeper, until he uncovers a number of stunning secrets that appall even this most cynical of men. It seems that Argentina of 1950 may not be all that different from Berlin in the thirties. Will Bernie’s insatiable curiosity, passion for truth, and “highly developed sense of social justice and democracy” prove to be his undoing?

Kerr’s descriptive writing is sharp and often breathtaking. Two examples are: “Eichmann’s meat cleaver of a face twitched nervously”; “poisonous, half decayed, vaguely fungal, it was the kind of house that belonged in a bottle of formaldehyde.”  Even if A Quiet Flame lacked a riveting and deliciously complex story and weighty themes, it would be worth reading for its dazzling style. The author leavens the dark and twisted proceedings with a liberal dose of laugh-out-loud black humor and biting sarcasm. Bernie cannot help being a smart-aleck, even when he is threatened with torture. This novel has fully realized characters, a suspenseful and mesmerizing plot, and even a touch of romance, all blended together seamlessly in a beautiful crafted work of noir fiction.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 90 readers
PUBLISHER: Putnam Adult (March 19, 2009)
REVIEWER: Eleanor Bukowsky
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Philip Kerr
EXTRAS: Excerpt 
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Philip Kerr

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April 21, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Facing History, Sleuths Series

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