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March Violets is a 1989 novel by Philip Kerr.

Berlin, 1936; Nazi Germany is about to host the Olympic Games. Bernhard "Bernie" Gunther is a private detective. Gunther, who used to be a policeman with the Berlin "kripo" (criminal police), resigned from the police force after being unable to accept how it was being corrupted by the Nazi Party. He is hardly a hero or a member of La Résistance; instead he is simply getting by, taking private eye work, trying to stay alive without selling his soul to the Nazis.

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A rich industrialist, one Hermann Six, hires Bernie for a case. Persons unknown entered the home of his daughter Grete and her husband Paul Pfarr, killed them both, and stole an extremely valuable diamond necklace from their safe. Six is content to let the police investigate the murders, but he does not want the Nazis to gain possession of the necklace, so he hires Bernie to find the jewels. Bernie starts off on an investigation that takes him to some very dark places, in a Germany that is now full of dark places.

March Violets is the first of what eventually became fourteen novels in the Bernie Gunther detective series, which traced his story from 1928 to 1959. The first three novels in the series—this one, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiem—are sometimes grouped together as the "Berlin Noir" trilogy.

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Tropes:

  • Angry Guard Dog: Bernie is set upon by two guard dogs, and shoots them both, as he is making his way back into Hermann Six's mansion to confront him.
  • Big Ol' Unibrow: Bernie's hoodlum informant, Neumann, has eyebrows that look like two caterpillars, "joined together by an irregular scribble of poorly matched hair."
  • Bookends: The first paragraph of the novel has Bernie observing how the SA are pulling down public display copies of Der Stürmer, a highly offensive anti-Semitic newspaper. Then Bernie goes to his secretary Dagmarr's wedding. The last chapter has Bernie meeting Dagmarr again and talking about her husband, a pilot who was killed in the Spanish Civil War. The very last line of the novel has Bernie observing that Der Stürmer is back up on display, and it's worse than ever.
  • Buxom Is Better: For all his world-weary cynicism, Bernie still finds himself frequently admiring a nice pair of breasts.
    • When he meets Ilse Rudel Bernie can't stop gawking at her body, observing that "her breasts were large and unsupported."
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    • When Inge Lorenz arrives at Bernie's office he pronounces her "well-built" with a "substantial bust".
    • When he meets Marlene Sahm, Paul Pfarr's secretary, he can't help but notice her "deep, well-sunburnt cleavage."
    • And when he's in Dachau, Bernie thinks about how he never liked Bavaria, but he did enjoy the clean air and "the size of their women's breasts."
  • Call-Forward: The Genre Savvy Inge notes that there aren't enough cars in Germany to justify Hitler's autobahns, and that the new highways are being built towards Czechoslovakia and Poland, likely targets of war.
  • Celebrity Resemblance: Bernie thinks that Weizmann the Jewish pawnbroker looks like Ernst Lubitsch.
  • Central Theme: The corrupting influence of the Nazi Party, how it is befouling the soul of Germany and destroying everything it touches. One old police friend of Bernie's comments about how he often finds himself reporting on murder cases to the people who arranged the murder.
  • Chalk Outline: When Rienacker of the Gestapo comes to Bernie's place at 11:30 at night to take him away, the sight of Walther Kolb's chalk outline on Bernie's floor leads Bernie to take his gun.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The fact that 1) the bodies of Paul and Grete were badly burned in the fire, and 2) Grete was found out to be eight weeks pregnant. Bernie finds out that Grete was unable to have children. He then sees a photo and realizes that the body of the woman found with Paul Pfarr wasn't Grete, it was Paul's mistress, Eva.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety:
    • Inge has to light up a smoke after they discover the rotting, maggot-infested corpse of Von Greis.
    • Bernie does the same after his confrontation with Jeschonnek and Haupthandler leads to Bernie shooting the former through the head and knocking the latter out.
  • City Noir: Berlin under the Nazis. Jews are persecuted and victimized, the government is a brutal gang of thugs, people disappear left and right.
  • Colliding Criminal Conspiracies: Two different people went into the Pfarr safe on the night of the murders and stole stuff. Mutschmann broke into the safe to steal the incriminating documents that Pfarr had on Hermann Six. Then a while later, after Grete killed her husband, and his lover, she and Haupthandler opened the safe and took the diamond necklace, to make it look like a robbery.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Bernie's cynicism and snark is his only weapon against Nazism. One example comes when he looks around Hermann Six's opulent reception room:
    "“It wasn’t big by the standards of a Bismarck or a Hindenburg, and you couldn’t have packed more than six cars between the Reichstag-sized desk and the door.”
  • Dramatic Gun Cock: Bernie cocks the hammer of his gun as quietly as possible, before jumping out and confronting the assassin who's trailing him.
  • Dramatic Sit-Down: "Six sat down heavily" after finding out that his daughter is not dead after all.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The opening chapter depicts Bernie as a sarcastic, jaded Deadpan Snarker. Dagmarr's husband Johannes is pretending that he is going off to join a flying club when really he is being sent off to air combat in the Spanish Civil War. So Bernie says goodbye with "Adios, hombre".
  • Evil Lawyer Joke: Bernie takes the measure of Hermann Six's lawyer, Schemm.
    "Schemm handed the butler his own hat as if to the manor born. Maybe he was, but with lawyers I always assume that they came by their wealth and position through avarice and by means nefarious."
  • Faking the Dead: Grete shot her husband and his lover in a fit of jealous rage. She and Haupthandler then put her ring on Eva's finger, and then set fire to the scene, to make the authorities think Grete was the one who was killed.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Goering acts like this when he meets Bernie, talking cheerfully about how cool Bernie's job is and how he, Goering, has always wanted to meet a detective. All the while he projects an air of coiled menace. (This contrasts with Reinhard Heydrich, who does not bother with a mask of affability.)
  • Fingertip Drug Analysis: Bernie tastes the white powder in the glove compartment of Red Dieter's car and confirms that it is in fact cocaine.
  • Gun Struggle: Out of nowhere, some young doofus arrives at Bernie's apartment, accusing him of raping Ilse Rudel. They struggle over the gun, and the young doofus, another lover of Ilse's named Walther Kolb, gets shot and killed.
  • Hellhole Prison: The tone of the book, already pretty dark, gets quite a bit darker when Bernie is sent to Dachau concentration camp to find Mutschmann. He says he can't adequately describe a place that left him "mute with horror". The purpose of Dachau, says Bernie, is "to break the human spirit."
  • Historical Domain Character: Several.
    • Bernie's old Kripo friend Illmann says that he's being run out of the police by the new director of Berlin police, Arthur Nebe. Later, both Nebe and Heinrich Himmler show up at the funeral of Hermann Six's daughter and stepson.
    • Hermann Goering hires Bernie to find his operative, Von Greis.
    • Bernie watches Jesse Owens run a race.
    • Reinhard Heydrich does not bat an eye when sending Bernie to Dachau.
  • Legitimate Businessmen's Social Club: The "rings". Officially they are "unions of ex-convicts", social clubs supposedly devoted to rehabilitating prisoners. In fact they are organized crime gangs. It turns out that Hermann Six was in neck-deep with one.
  • Master Race: After watching Jesse Owens run the 100 meters at the Olympics, Bernie thinks about how Owens exposes Nazi propaganda of the "master race" as nonsense, and that if there is a master race, Owens is part of it.
  • Needle in a Stack of Needles: To avoid all the people who were hunting him for the stolen documents, Mutschmann the safecracker gets himself arrested for Communist graffiti, and sent to Dachau. He even quotes to Bernie a Chinese proverb about hiding a raindrop in a waterfall. What Mutschmann didn't count on was catching hepatitis and dying in the camp.
  • Nice Hat: Ilse Rudel wears "a stunning black hat that was like a grand piano with the lid up" to her stepdaughter's funeral.
  • Oh, Crap!: Bernie Gunther loses his insouciant manner, and his hands are shaking while lighting a cigarette, after Reinhard Heydrich tells him that he's going to Dachau.
  • Pretty Little Headshots: Bernie sees a "neat little caste-mark" in the center of Grete Pfarr's forehead, as they rush away. She got shot by the gangsters as Bernie was trying to make an escape on the boat.
  • Private Eye Monologue: Told in the first person by Bernie Gunther, who is your typical bitter, cynical private detective.
  • Put Off Their Food: Bernie goes to eat at the Cafe Stock, but is put off his food when Stock, the proprietor, relates a story about a dead guy fished out of the Landwehr canal. He was killed by a broken pool cue, shoved up his nose and into his brain.
  • Quitting to Get Married: The book opens with Bernie's secretary Dagmarr getting married, which means the end of her employment with Bernie. There's very strong pressure from the Nazi establishment for married women to be homemakers, and Dagmarr's husband Johannes is an enthusiastic Nazi.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Bernie's Kripo friend Bruno gets sent off to a minor posting in Spreewald at the end of the novel, due to not being enough of a Nazi.
  • Safecracking: Much of the novel has Bernie looking for Mutschmann, the safecracker who stole the documents from Pfarr's safe. Bernie can't figure out why Mutschmann, who was an experienced craftsman in the art of safecracking, would have left the door of the safe open.
  • Shout-Out:
  • State Sec: The Gestapo, the Nazi secret police. Bernie deals with one Rienacker, a Gestapo agent who is still loyal to Goering. He gets ahold of a Gestapo badge and uses it to bluff his way into places he's not supposed to be.
  • Stealing from the Till: Paul Pfarr was investigating his own father-in-law, for embezzling from pension funds from the German Labor Front that were deposited in his bank.
  • Title Drop: A "March Violet" is a latecomer to the Nazi party, one of the many bandwagoners who joined after Hitler came to power in 1933.
  • Trophy Wife: Ilse Rudel is a smoking hot movie star who is married to Six, whom Bernie describes as a "gnome". He says it's "the sort of thing that bolsters your faith in Money."
  • The Unreveal: The novel ends with Bernie unable to locate Inge, confronted by the indifference of a new Germany where people don't care about piddling things like people who disappear without a trace. (The disappearance of Inge Lorenz is eventually followed up on in the next Bernie Gunther novel, The Pale Criminal.)
  • Unusual Pets for Unusual People: Bernie is boggled to see Hermann Goering cuddling a lion cub. (This is true to history; Goering, who enjoyed vulgar displays of wealth, kept lion cubs, giving them to the Berlin Zoo when they became too large to handle.)
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