Tuesday, April 6, 2010

[review] March Violets

March Violets, by Philip Kerr

Murder and disappearances are no surprise in the Summer of 1936, Berlin. These are the specialty of Our Hero, Bernhard Gunther. He’s a hard-bitten private detective who strategically quit the police force to set up business away from politics.

This is what it would be like for a non-American to read Ellory or Hammett. (I mean anyone not from here, regardless of their native language.) Kerr uses anachronistic/British English terms (braces, i.e. suspenders), as well as German titles (Hauptüberführergruppenvergnügen, you get the idea). These are both sparing. The military titles are generally irrelevant to the plot, so they provide a delicate spice you don't need to identify. However, the use of German slang directly translated into English is heavy handed.* These are frequent. Frequent enough to really interrupt the flow. This is my biggest compliant.

Famous people pop in and out both by name and in person. Again, a passing knowledge of German history would seriously benefit the reader. Goebbels v. Himmler? Sure, you recognize their names, but who are they?** One major (fictious) character is a steel magnate from the Ruhr, whose major competitors are Thyssen & Krupp - fine, but perhaps the story’s depth is more apparent if you know those 2 are the biggest steel manufacturers in Europe, rather than wonder why your coffee pot brand is misspelled.

Here and there the story seems to be steered from the passenger seat; driven more by the author than the inherent plot. One significant detour to Dachau is totally contrived to the point of annoyance.

Most of my complaints revolve around the author trying to demonstrate his vast personal knowledge of German history and geography. I’ve been to several places mentioned. Mentioning the burned out husk of the Reichstag is nice; I hadn’t realized it was destroyed before the war. Using major landmarks (Museum Island, the War Memorial, Unter den Linden, etc.) is enough orientation for the casual tourist or world-news aware. Anything more is too much.

All in all, a relatively ordinary detective-murder mystery set in a pleasantly different paradigm (not England or LA/NY). Nothing spectacular one way or the other. But the bumpy writing makes it ineligible for a rating better than "pleasant distraction".

*I was rather pleased I actually knew one of these (quite surprisingly, the slang for hangover).
No doubt my in-laws would be equally at a loss with bird, gumshoe, heat, sing (woman, private detective, police, confess).

**Sorry, in-laws & meine deutsche Freunde, but the vast majority of Americans
don't know who they are.

Healthy Gopher's rating: - if it's lying around your friend's summer cottage, and you're bored, might as well read it.

1 comment:

ccyager said...

Interesting. I enjoy reading foreign fiction, and for some reason, I usually end up reading Scandinavian detective fiction. I did read a Czech murder mystery once set in the final days of WW2 when everyone was scrambling to cover their butts. A serial killer was on the loose and a poor Czech detective had to work with the German police on the case. It was pretty interesting and quite suspenseful at times.

I just finished "Darkly Dreaming Dexter." Have you read any of the Dexter novels? I love this character of Dexter Morgan. If you even mildly enjoyed Tom Ripley, you'd probably like this guy.