If The Dead Rise Not, By Philip Kerr

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The Independent Culture

Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe had it easy. Sure, they had to contend with corrupt cops and shifty dames with an eye for the main chance – and the money – but, unlike hotel detective and fledgling private eye Bernie Gunther, they didn't have the Nazis to worry about. If the Dead Rise Not is the sixth book in Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir series and, like its predecessors, features the world-weary, wise-cracking Gunther, a man so hard-boiled he makes his rivals look gently poached.

The year is 1934 and Berlin is preparing for the Olympics, while across Germany, civil liberties are being crushed, freedom by freedom, although few people can have any idea of the horrors to come. Even former policeman Gunther, no slouch when it comes to abject cynicism, can barely believe the incremental brutalities that Berlin's Jews are facing. But when a man is found dead in mysterious circumstances, the official forces discover he may have been Jewish and won't investigate.

One person more aware of the gathering storm than most is American journalist Noreen Charalambides, a guest at the hotel where Gunther works. She is on assignment to expose the Nazi regime's hypocrisies as it trumpets its Olympic plans while banning non-gentiles from competing. A Chicago gangster, a death on Gunther beat, construction contracts, incarceration and true love swirl around Gunther, a torrent of events through which he manages – just – to keep his head above water.

In documenting the turning tides, Kerr's period detail is utterly convincing. The way he captures a lost Berlin on the brink of cataclysmic change is in turns poignant and gritty. From the bars to the bedrooms, the "joy girls" – prostitutes by night, stenographers by day – to the hollow-eyed Jewish work gangs, begging for even the most dangerous jobs, the city and its citizens are caught, insect-like, in the amber of Kerr's words.

When the action switches to post-war Cuba – time is a moveable feast in the Berlin Noir series, with the titles set after, during and before the war, often all three – the sense of Havana's humid languor masking revolutionary plots rings every bit as true. This skill, no doubt, is what helped Philip Kerr to win the €125,000 RBA international prize in Spain last month: the world's most lucrative crime-fiction award.

What also impresses is Kerr's examination of how a man changes – and how he stays the same – over 20 years, when those two decades are so desperate and blood-spattered. And the way that, despite a casual attitude to murder, a murky war record and the bitterness of life torn asunder by war, Gunther remains a sympathetic character despite his methods of survival.

He is a complicated man in a complicated age , who stars in a sophisticated thriller that brings the war and its aftermath to life.

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