The first two-thirds of If the Dead Rise Not is set in Berlin in 1934. Hitler’s National Socialist Party has been in power for 18 months which made Bernie Gunther’s life as a homicide detective untenable because he is a supporter of the previous regime. So he is now a house detective for an up-market hotel. In that role he becomes embroiled in several investigations including gangster involvement in the bidding for building contracts for the upcoming Olympiad. In the second book last third of the book we jump to Cuba in 1954 where Bernie is playing with model trains and having sex with a selection of prostitutes when some of the people from 1934 reprise their roles bit-players in Bernie’s life in a sequence of events that had, to my ears, less to do with crime fiction and more to do with Bernie proving some more how witty and sarcastic he can be.
If I had read the excellent review at Crime Scraps before embarking on this book I wouldn’t have. Embarked on the book that is. Because 30’s hardboiled detectives in the style of Chandler, Hammett et al is just not my cup of tea. Where Uriah Robinson in his review sees a sharp first person narrative and clever lines I see a bunch of blokes who exhibit a blasé attitude to violence and a leering, lecherous quality that I find tiresome.
So my first problem is the style of the book which, it turns out, I still don’t like even though it was conceivable that my tastes might have changed in the 20 or so years since I read a hardboiled PI novel.
Then we come to the fact it felt like two separate books rather than a single entity. The audio version of the book is 16 hours long. A little more than the last 6 hours takes place in Cuba after the rather abrupt ending to the first part. A handful of the same characters are present, including the woman he fell in love with and an American gangster who nearly killed him, but I’ve seen separate books in a series have more connection with each other than the two parts of this book. Also, the Cuba portion of the book incorporated even more real characters from history in a way that I find trite. As soon as we jumped to Cuba I was waiting for Ernest Hemingway to make an appearance. Which of course he did. Ho hum.
What I did like about the book was Kerr’s ability to create a sense of time and place. His early period Nazi Germany is oppressive and sinister and there is a tangible quality to the sense that no one comprehending how bad things will get. It really is quite chilling. I found the Cuba portion a little more ‘hokey’ but I admit that’s at least partly because I was, by then, over it. And to be fair, when he wasn’t belting people or describing every woman he encountered in terms of how much he would like to have sex with her Bernie was quite witty and had random moments of moral clarity. I have to say too that Jeff Harding’s narration was a perfect match for the tone and style of the book.
To be abundantly clear I am in the minority in my feelings towards this book. Reviews at Crime Scraps and Reviewing the Evidence are indicative of the majority view and even though she has some misgivings Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise feels far less negatively than I do. And if there was any doubt that mine is a minority view If the Dead Rise Not won the 2009 CWA Ellis Peters Award for historical fiction.
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My rating 2/5
Narrator: Jeff Harding; Publisher: ISIS Audio Books [2010, original edition 2009]; ISBN: N/A (downloaded from audible); Length 15 hours 58 minutes; Setting: Germany 1934, Cuba 1954
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Bernadette – Thanks for your candor. Doesn’t matter if you’re in the minority, you’ve a right to your take on the book, of course, and I’m glad to read it. To me, it’s almost more interesting when there are widely divergent views of a book than it is if everyone agrees completely.
Bernadette, thanks for the mention. It does make a change for me to be in the majority.
We all have different tastes, at least about some books! I have been sent a few of these by the publisher but haven’t read them, mainly because historical crime fiction isn’t really my thing. Like you I have read Norman’s (and others’) excellent reviews of these, and also interviews with the author (eg Norman’s, again) and am aware of his prizes, but somehow I haven’t been drawn to read these. Norman and I share very similar tastes in Italian crime (he introduced me to Camilleri, for which I am eternally grateful, and I’ve just read my first Carlotti mainly thanks to his advocacy – wow!) – but historical, I am less sure of my ground as I find the history and the attempts at “accuracy” (sometimes extremely detailed) can get in the way of the essentials such as telling a good story, characteritation, etc. However, if I do embark on historical crime, Rebecca Cantrill will be my first (as Norman kindly sent me A Trace of Smoke) and Kerr pretty soon after..though I don’t know, after your review….maybe not so sure……
Bernadette, I think you’re dead on with this review, and I have to say that as a big fan of Kerr. This felt like it could have been two different novels, the two halves were so different in feel and treatment, almost as if Kerr wrote this in two completely different mindsets and never returned to match them up with a rewrite. Maybe that was the intent. Still, like you I appreciate his ability to create a sense of time and place.
Maxine, do give the historical fiction a shot. It doesn’t have to be overly detailed, just fed with the right details to serve the story when it’s done right. I think Rebecca Cantrell’s book is a good example of that, and I definitely recommend it. Haven’t read her second though. Another I recommend is John LLawton — his books are set in wartime and 1950s Britain. Good stuff, and he doesn’t get enough mention.
I know this post is many months old, but I was glad to find your blog and wanted to comment. Be seeing ya around.
Thanks for stopping by Stephen, I quite like seeing comments on older posts on the blog – nice to know the entire world is not just focused on what happened in the last 5 minutes :). Perhaps I should try something else of Kerr’s, I may have to think about that. I just figured if the award winner didn’t grab me then the rest would probably not be my cup of tea either – I shall give it some thought anyway.
Hey, you’re welcome, Bernadette. Glad to hear you like seeing comments on older posts. I think you should definitely try one of Kerr’s earlier Bernie Gunther/Berlin novels.