Our latest book review is from our Fiction Editor, Shirley
A different kind of book review this time. It’s about the book I’m in the middle of right now – though actually, I’m reading it on Kindle which tells me I’m currently at precisely 26%. It’s March Violets by Philip Kerr, who died recently at the young age of 61. It was first published in 1989, book 1 in his Berlin Noir trilogy.
I actually started reading it years ago, prompted by Mr Fiction Ed’s enjoyment of this one and the others that follow. I gave up on it back then, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. But so much has been written since Kerr’s death about the brilliant portrayal of character Bernie Gunther that I’ve been shamed into giving him another chance.
Günther is a 38-year-old ex-cop private detective, hired by industrialist Hermann Six to recover a diamond necklace stolen from a safe in his daughter Grete’s house. As part of the robbery, it appears both Grete and her husband were murdered and the house torched. This takes place against the backdrop of pre-war Berlin, with anti-Jewish sentiment running wild and the reader’s awareness of the madness to come.
Sounds good. So why did I quit on March Violets last time?
To be honest I found it excluded me. It assumed knowledge that I didn’t have. Even the title, March Violets. What does it mean? I Googled it and learned “‘March Violets’ were opportunist late-comers to the Nazi Party after the passage of Hitler’s Enabling Act rendering him dictator, on March 23, 1933.” Not so difficult to work out, I guess, but thank goodness for smartphones and Wikipedia.
I also found the language odd, though I’m sure it’s an accurate reflection of the idiom of the time. Lines like “Paul wanted a nice platinum tooth – you know, a rich wife” and “You’re not listening, spoon-ears,” and “I drove home feeling like a ventriloquist’s mouth ulcer.” There’s an unusual turn of phrase like that on every page and I found it distracting.
But, as I said, since Kerr’s passing the book critics have been eloquent and fulsome in their praise of Gunther’s characterisation. The deficiency, therefore, must surely be mine and I’m giving it another try. I’ll let you know how I get on.