March Violets by Philip Kerr was first published in 1989. It is the first of the “opening trilogy” of novels starring German detective Bernhard Gunther. March Violets was republished in 1993 along with the other two novels of the trilogy. The novel is set in Germany during the 1936 Summer Olympics, but there is no strong connection between the Olympics and the murder-mystery of the plot. I think this is Kerr’s first published novel.
March Violets has a lot going for it to make it an interesting read. However, there are a couple of elements that really take away from giving this novel a great rating. Largely, Kerr wrote this “historical novel” in a way that emulates all of the stereotypes of “noir/hard-boiled” fiction. Now, depending on whether readers are looking for that style or not, will determine how tolerant they will be of the novel. If readers are seeking a rough and tumble detective who saw military action, is an ex-cop, drinks like a fish, and has a mighty libido, well, Bernie Gunther will be a hit. If not, this novel will seem tedious and aggravating.
“It’s just typical of the bloody Nazis,” said Inge, “to build the People’s roads before the People’s car.” – pg. 153, Chapter 13
I was rather impressed with the setting. Kerr manages to portray the reactions of the citizens living in this tumultuous Germany with skill. With every character met and with every darkened Berlin street traveled, the reader feels the Nineteen Eighty-Four-esque oppression of the Nazi government. The factions within the Nazi party create hazy divisions. Everyone is suspect, everyone tries to look like they are obedient to whatever authority is in their proximity. Berlin is overrun with thugs with badges who bully and abuse the citizens – sometimes on official business, sometimes on a whim. Newspapers have turned into propaganda. And anti-Semitism is the rule of the day. All of these pressures are quite palpable and significant in the novel.
The voice was fastidious, suave even: soft and slow, with just a hint of cruelty. The sort of voice, I thought, that could lead you into incriminating yourself quite nicely, thank you. The sort of voice that would have done well for its owner had he worked for the Gestapo. – pg. 11, Chapter 2
Gunther is an ex-soldier and ex-cop widower. His wife died many years previous and he has left the police force where he was a Kriminalinspektor of some repute. He now works as a private detective. This is not exactly a career that makes the official policing agents of Germany happy. Also, the reader is forced to share Gunther’s frustration at practicing this career in a regime wherein truth, legality, and morality are not the norm. It is usually difficult enough for detectives to hunt down criminals and seek out the truth, but in 1936 Berlin, that seems like a ridiculous task.
Dogs are not at all keen on private investigators, and it’s an antipathy that is entirely mutual. – pg. 78, Chapter 7
The main noir-stereotype that Kerr uses is the metaphor. Not sweet pastoral metaphors, but gritty tough-guy metaphors. Some of these are amusing and witty. At other times, they are overused. Where this stereotype comes from, I don’t know. But I have never met an individual (detective or otherwise) who thinks so frequently in metaphors as noir-characters do. Still, some of the lingo is fun: bulls = cops, lighters = handguns, etc.
Gunther is collected in the middle of the night by the associates of an industry tycoon. He is taken to that industrialist’s house and is hired to investigate a murder-robbery of the tycoon’s daughter and son-in-law. The couple were shot and their house (including corpses) suffered arson in an attempt to destroy evidence. In the course of this investigation is where I lost track of the murder-mystery story and just learned to enjoy the setting. I probably was not paying careful enough attention. But Gunther’s “investigations” seem disjointed and without much profit. The cast of characters keeps expanding and I stopped differentiating between them all. Of course, this is meant to show the variety of forces acting in the case, but many times, it just seemed overcrowded and really stretched. Gunther even has a late night meeting with Göring.
Honestly, I spent a large portion of the novel thinking that Dr. Fritz Schemm was the same as the character Haupthandler. I’m still not sure where the latter came in and why he was significant? He is one of the bodycount, though, so maybe it doesn’t matter.
Another issue I have with the story: the number of times Gunther is knocked unconscious. He is beaten senseless at least five times in this novel. I don’t know how many readers have been purposefully clobbered on the head, but that many times knocked down and out is not a light matter. In fact, it is absurd. And many times, Gunther is smacked by a blunt object, falls unconscious, and wakes up and just continues on with the investigation – perhaps muttering about a sore neck/head.
I didn’t need my deerstalker-hat to realize that the place had been turned over, from top to bottom. – pg. 115, Chapter 10
The largest issue I have with the novel is that there are several scenes – particularly the climactic ones near the end – that are what I think of as over-the-line graphic and gory. The scenes are meant to show depravity or inhumanity and they do. But I think the reader has enough to deal with considering the anti-Semitism, the political machinations, the general violence and crime throughout without needing the descriptively gross scenes. I thought about it and without these scenes – or reducing them to a milder level – does nothing harmful to the story. The scenes are unnecessary and bluntly repulsive. Yes, Nazis were brutal, but that is obvious in the novel without moving to the level that these scenes do.
Overall, I give this three stars. The storyline gets lost and unclear. There is a horrific level of brutality in several scenes. The use of metaphors is a bit too frequent and too heavy-handed, even for noir. Based on these complaints, one would expect a lower rating. However, the environment of the novel is very well-crafted and the main character, while not unique, is still a real trooper. I may read the next in the series (The Pale Criminal ), but certainly not until I’ve forgotten some of the gross of this novel.