The Lady from Zagreb
© 2015 Phillip Kerr
Bernie Gunther was an ordinary police detective in wild, wonderful Weimar until Germany’s economy collapsed and fringe parties swept into power. His police department absorbed by the SS, he wears the uniform of a party and of an ideology he loathes – and does a poor job of even pretending to tolerate. His antipathy for the Party makes a man of Bernie’s talents a useful tool, however, at least to Joseph Goebbels. With no career prospects or political ambition, the detective can be hired for a little bit of innocent work that the master of deceit would prefer to keep concealed from his rivals in evil miniondom, like Himmler. For instance, Goebbels has his eye on a certain starlet who is waffling on cinema as a career prospect, despite being a Siren-like beauty who is sure to become the continent’s most popular actress. Officially, of course, the chief of propaganda wants to keep her engaged making films to glorify the fatherland, but he also has more intimate engagements in mind – the kind that married men have no business in making. The problem is that the poor dear is distracted by her long-missing father, lost in war-torn Yugoslavia. What he’d like for Gunther to do is pop down to the most hellish place in Europe short of Auschwitz for a spell, find dear old dad, and then report back to Berlin.
Nothing is ever so simple, of course. Gunther has already encountered some soul-harrowing scenes since the Nazis took power in 1933; he has seen massacres on both the Soviet and Nazi sides of the battle-lines, and been exposed to the Final Solution in action. Yugoslavia, however, is a bloodbath to be endured only with the native whiskey,:Gunther’s report makes even Goebbels blanch at the horror of it. There, the princes of hell on earth decorate their strongholds with skulls on pikes, and photographs of executions, like something out of a nightmare. The usual psychological defenses – sarcasm, booze, and cigarettes – don’t quite do the trick. To survive, Gunther counterattacks: he falls in love. If the hormone rush from becoming infatuated with Germany’s foremost sex symbol doesn’t do the trick, then perhaps the thrill of chasing a girl who is not only married, but a mistress-potential for one of the most powerful men in the reich will. Eventually the action moves to Switzerland, where Americans mistake Gunther for a German general and hilarity ensues. Amid even more
death, however, the piece of a puzzle which has lingered on Gunther’s mind for a year finally falls into place.
The Lady from Zagreb is a very well-done detective novel, putting its wartime Europe setting to good effect and linking several mysteries together. The humor is biting, as ever; on learning that a fellow officer is writing yet another novel, Gunther comments that there will always be room in Germany for more novels, provided his countrymen keep burning them. In an early scene, a man is literally killed by Hitler; a bust of Adolf is used as a bludgeon. Against the backdrop of both the Holocaust and the obscene carnage of Yugoslavia, however, even that humor fails to prevent this from being an utterly distressing novel, set in a land of desecration and filled with horror and manipulation. Not even Gunther’s relationship with Dalia is free from the cloud of horror, unsurprising given Goebbels’ close presence. Certainly there’s no fault in creativity or research; the book is littered with odd little details that must have been strange research finds, like a U-boat parked on the autobahn; one of Gunther’s escapes is especially captivating. As thrilling as it is, Zagreb is more than touch dispiriting on the whole, however.