Dark Passages: The Holocaust-Era Gumshoe

My newest Dark Passages column at the LA Times looks at the Bernie Gunther novels by Philip Kerr (most recently A QUIET FLAME, which is published next week here though it’s been out in the UK for a year already) and stakes the claim for their importance by stressing the marriage of entertainment and education. Here’s how it opens:

At the moment, the current contretemps in American letters revolves
around "The Kindly Ones," Jonathan Littell's mammoth,
translated-from-French novel about the horrors of the Holocaust that's
divided critics around the world considerably since its initial 2006
publication. Is it, as legendary editor Michael Korda would have it, "a
world-class masterpiece of astonishing brutality, originality, and
force," or, as per New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani's
verdict, "willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent"?

Others are better equipped to solve this polarizing conundrum, but I
bring Littell up because he attempts — successfully or otherwise — to
tackle Nazi atrocities head-on, consciously aiming to write a great
work of fiction and relegating the reader's entertainment to mere
afterthought. That approach may work for a select few, but eschewing
the didactic in favor of embedding the lessons of this monstrous time
in history through the prism of the classic entertainment trope of a
wisecracking, archly ironic private detective has served British author
Philip Kerr extremely well since the three novels that constitute his "Berlin Noir" (Penguin:
836 pp., $20 paper) trilogy first appeared, between 1989 and 1991. In
roughly the same number of pages, "Berlin Noir" does exactly the
opposite of "The Kindly Ones" — examining the Holocaust through the
prism of what transpired before and after — and, as a result, the
trilogy (and two subsequent sequels) stands a better chance of literary

  Read on for the rest.