Book review: If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr

Published by Putnam, 448 pp, $33.50, softcover

Philip Kerr’s If the Dead Rise Not is the sixth novel featuring ex-cop Bernie Gunther. Set predominantly in 1934 Berlin, Kerr’s latest homage to the classic school of hard-boiled fiction is a suspenseful blend of murder, sex, and greed. But there’s more. In the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, the author chronicles the high price we pay for wisdom in a world gone mad. Like the best of the genre, this is a mystery that inevitably blossoms into a lament on the darker side of human nature.

Talk about your mean streets. Kerr’s look through the dirty peephole of prewar Germany reveals a world where Nazi soldiers march as if they’re “intent on making work for the road menders”. The spreading malignancy of Aryanization prompts a thriving black market in fake documents designed to erase the faintest trace of Jewish heritage. Since Hitler’s government wants to maintain an untarnished lock on Berlin’s successful bid to host the 1936 Olympics, there’s a hell of a lot of dirt being swept under the rug.

As the novel opens, Gunther is working as a house detective at one of the city’s swankier hotels. The job doesn’t call for much skill from the former homicide detective. But thanks to Gunther’s intense dislike of the Nazi party, he’s been blacklisted from serious police work. The good news? Boredom allows him plenty of time to offer tart opinions on everything from Berlin’s legendary “joy girls” to the professional merits of cigarettes.

“Smoking is essential for a detective,” he tells a young protégé. “It helps convince us we’re doing something, even when we’re doing nothing much at all.” While our hero never stops smoking—or drinking schnapps—things begin to heat up when a prosperous lodger dies on Gunther’s watch.

The suspicious death leads to lingering complications involving a vicious American gangster, a conniving prostitute, and a beautiful journalist determined to expose Hitler’s racial policies. By the time the absorbing narrative makes a seamless shift to 1950s Havana, we’re so completely hooked on all of Kerr’s creations that we’d follow them anywhere.




Jun 10, 2010 at 7:06pm

Read it. Loved it!!