(25. - 1164.) A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr - In 1950, Bernie Gunther, escapes from Germany through the SS “ratline”. He arrives in Buenos Aires with Adolf Eichmann and Herbert Kuhlmann.
Invited to visit with President Juan Perón, who likes meeting the Nazis who have fled Argentina, Gunther cannot restrain his stubborn integrity and tells Perón his real identity and why he had to leave Germany. The President appreciates his candour. Evita is less impressed by Gunther.
Colonel Montalbán of the Buenos Aires secret police knows Gunther’s work as a detective in Berlin before and after the war. He wants Gunther to solve a gruesome case. A teenage girl has been mutilated. Another, Fabienne von Bader, is missing. With the missing girl from a prominent banking family the pressure is on the police.
Gunther is provided with money, a car (a lime green Chevrolet convertible), a gun and authority to question. Montalbán believes the killer to be a German who escaped Germany or an Argentinian German.
The book follows the Colonel’s research back to the 1932 Berlin investigation by Gunther of the murder and mutilation of a partially crippled teenage German girl. The book moves easily between the 1932 and 1950 investigations.
While Gunther diligently pursues the case in the 1930’s, he is constantly thinking about her parents being ardent Nazis.
His tart tongue at a press conference that the killer should not face the death penalty provokes Nazi anger.
Germany is severely polarized. The police are almost helpless as Nazis and Communists kill each other. Many in the police department want the Nazis to take power.
The Colonel has even obtained the files in the unsolved German case. It is a startling experience for Gunther to see those documents in a land thousands of miles away from Germany after the destruction of the Third Reich which had been prepared just before the Nazi takeover 18 years earlier.
In 1932 Gunther was a police commissioner in a Berlin police force. He fears the Nazis will win the next election and radically change the police. In 1950, he is working for the secret service and he has become the feared man.
In 1932, while he asserts he is unconcerned, Gunther must tread carefully about the aggressive Nazi party members, including Nazi leaders, involved in the investigation.
In 1950, he has the power of his position within the Argentine secret service while the “old comrades” from the SS must be careful, even appease him, with their actions and attitude. Their resentment must be shielded as Gunther probes for a killer among them. They know they have no power.
Though I should not have been, I was surprised by the number of “old comrades” in Argentina. Many are as vicious personally as they were ruthless professionally during the war.
Gunther relishes how the power dynamics between himself and the Nazis have been reversed.
Among the layers of complications is alleged Nazi wealth controlled by Argentinians.
The resolution is horrifying and all too credible delving deeply into the horrors of Nazi depravity both on an individual and mass scale. Just as during the war Gunther’s new experiences with Nazis taint his soul.
Yet there was much more to the story in which Gunther’s talents for finding the missing are sought out. In Argentina the word “missing” has a special meaning that is not limited to the 1970’s and 1980’s but goes back to the years following World War II. The Argentinians are rivals for the Germans in manipulation.
Peron’s reign is far darker than I had realized.
Kerr has a skill for twists to equal Jeffery Deaver.
I do not think I have read another mystery author who so cleverly moves his sleuth back and forth in time. Flashbacks can work in a book but are hard to do book after book. Kerr succeeds by tying the flashbacks to the current investigation.
Kerr is so smooth and convincing in his books. Unlike many fictional sleuths transported by their authors to a distant location from their home, Gunther fits easily into Argentina. Investigating the local German speaking population makes the adaptation easier though Gunther also speaks Spanish.
Out of the first 5 Bernie Gunther books, A Quiet Flame is the best.