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Literature / The Lady From Zagreb

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The Lady from Zagreb is a 2015 novel by Philip Kerr.

It's the tenth novel in the Bernie Gunther detective series. The book opens in Nazi Germany in the summer of 1942. Bernie Gunther is back in Berlin, with the "Kripo" (criminal police), after having investigated a murder in what was once Yugoslavia for Reinhard Heydrich. His boss, Arthur Nebe, orders Bernie to give a talk to an international conference of policemen in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, where a far more infamous conference was held earlier that same year. He is engaged by one Dr. Heckholz on behalf of Friedrich Minoux, the former owner of the Wannsee house. Minoux was forced to sell the house to the SS at a cut-rate price after he went to prison for fraud and embezzlement. Heckholz and Minoux's wife seek Bernie's help in protecting her assets from seizure. They also engage him to dig up info on how the SS arranged to screw Herr Minoux out of his house, so they can embarrass the SS bigwigs into selling the house back to Frau Minoux.


That plot thread ends with a sudden murder. Fast-forward a year to the early summer of 1943, and the second plot thread. Bernie, back from investigating the massacre of thousands of Polish officers by the NKVD in the area around Smolensk and the Katyn Forest, is given a mission by none other than Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels has fallen in love with one of his starlets, one Dalia Dresner. Dalia, who is originally from Croatia, has a long-lost father who is believed to be living as a monk. Bernie makes the hazardous journey to wartime Croatia, finds Dalia's father, and comes back—but Goebbels has another mission for him, one that also involves the lovely Dalia. Bernie finds himself falling in love, but things start getting more complicated as the second plot thread starts interacting with the first.



  • As You Know: A huge slab of exposition from Dalia to Bernie, which takes up all of Chapter 15, includes her telling him that Germany invaded Yugoslavia in 1941 and set up Croatia as an independent puppet state after conquering and dismembering the country.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Not only does Dalia escape punishment for killing a psycho mass-murderer Croatian Ustase captain, Bernie helps her to escape and return to Switzerland, out of the clutches of Goebbels. But as Goebbels' minion taunts Bernie, he'll never see her again, and she'll forget about him. The Framing Device has him weeping, some thirteen years later, after seeing Dalia's latest movie.
  • Book Burning: Bernie makes a joke about book burning and then has to explain to Dalia how Goebbels organized a book burning in 1933.
  • Classical Music Is Boring: Bernie admires Lt. Leuthard for falling asleep at an opera.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • Bernie recalls how Heinrich Himmler himself kicked Bernie in the shins in November 1938 after Bernie pissed him off. That happens in The Pale Criminal. Meyer, the writer of detective fiction, also asks Bernie about the serial killings that were central to that book.
    • Bernie meets one of his old cop acquaintances and reminisces about how he hadn't seen the guy since they both investigated the death of Ernst Udet in late 1941. That happens at the end of Prague Fatale. Later, American agent Allen Dulles presents Bernie with a picture of him attending the circus with Reinhard Heydrich, something else that happened at the end of that book.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Fourteen years after Bernie's casual acquaintance Lt. Leuthard murdered Dr. Heckholz, Bernie meets him at random on the French Riviera. Leuthard gives Bernie a job.
  • Couldn't Find a Pen: The dying Dr. Heckholz scrawled a cross on the floor in his own blood after his head was bashed in. Bernie assumes that Heckholz ran out of time for the rest of his message but eventually realizes that Heckholz drew a Swiss flag—Heckholz was murdered by the Swiss officer, Lt. Leuthard.
  • Crapsack World: Bernie has been to some terrible places during the war but Croatia might be the worst. The nadir of his visit comes when he visits Jasenovac concentration camp, where the gardens are decorated with severed heads and the Ustase guards have special mittens with sewed-in razor blades for throat slitting. Before that, he sees a series of corpses floating down a stream. His nervous SS guards shoot two Muslim peasants that are out hunting. Afterwards, Bernie reflects that he'll never be able to see a Croatian flag again without thinking about murder.
  • Death by Falling Over: How the real Dragica, the one that Stefan and Dalia hid in the lake, died. She and Dalia had a fight, Dalia struck her, and Dragica fell over and hit her head.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Seasoned SS types are shocked by the brutality of their Ustase allies.
  • Expy: In the postscript Kerr states directly that Dalia Dresner was based on Pola Negri and Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr was, like Dresner, a Slav who hit it big as an actress, while also being a technical genius. Bernie notes how Dalia lost out on a role in Real Life 1949 film Samson and Delilah to Lamarr.
  • Fanservice: In-Universe. Bernie remembers how Dalia Dresner played a character who was stripped naked and stoned to death. Bernie recognized it as "a good excuse to see a beautiful woman taking off her clothes."
  • Foreshadowing: Captain Geiger of the SS lights a fireplace by spitting rakija (Balkan brandy) into a fireplace and setting the fireplace, the wall, and the floor on fire. Later, Bernie escapes from two men who are going to kill him by doing the same with a mouthful of rakija while they're lighting cigarettes.
  • Framing Device: The opening and closing has Bernie on the French Riviera in 1956, watching a Dalia Dresner movie and thinking mournfully of lost times and his lost love.
  • Historical Domain Character: Many, as usual in the Bernie Gunther series. Arthur Nebe pops up again, sending Bernie to the IKPK conference. Once again, Joseph Goebbels gives Bernie a job. Also with minor characters; Friedrich Minoux was a real guy who really did go to prison for embezzlement.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink:
    • Bernie has to help himself to Dr. Heckholz's schnapps, after coming into the office and finding Heckholz freshly dead, his head bashed in.
    • After Capt. Geiger spits some liquor into a fireplace and sets the whole room on fire, Bernie has to chug some to steady his nerves.
  • Info Dump: Chapter 15 is a long info dump in which Dalia tells Bernie her background and history in Croatia, then tells him stuff he already knows about how Germany conquered Yugoslavia in 1941, and then dumps still more exposition about how Croatia is run by the fascist Ustase, but the Ustase is still fighting both communist and royalist partisans, and Yugoslavia is just a huge mess.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: There's a lot of this when Bernie strikes up an acquaintance with Meyer, the Swiss detective and also detective fiction novelist, and they talk about Detective Fiction. Bernie says that people like detective stories because they end tidily and the moral universe is restored, but Real Life isn't like that. Towards the end of this novel he muses about how his story would not make for good detective fiction, because of the two murders Bernie solves, one goes unpunished, and in the other one not only does it go unpunished, Bernie helps the killer get away with it.
  • Marriage of Convenience: Bernie doesn't love Kirsten, the pretty schoolteacher that he hurriedly marries in this novel. But he marries her because 1) single people aren't allowed visas to leave Germany, out of fear that they won't return, and 2) she's in danger of getting arrested by the Gestapo for anti-Nazi comments.
  • Naked on Arrival: When Bernie first meets Dalia Dresner, she is sunbathing in the nude in the backyard of her home. Bernie sees the two glasses set next to a pitcher of lemonade and figures that Dalia did this on purpose.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: A particularly grim version of this as a wrathful Joseph Goebbels has Bernie plucked from his cushy job with the War Crimes Bureau and sent to the Eastern Front, as punishment for how the Dalia Dresner affair played out.
  • Sarcasm Mode: Bernie Gunther, as always. He says of the recently assassinated Reinhard Heydrich that he was "buried the month before with full military honors with a clove of garlic in his mouth and a stake through his heart."
  • Secret Test of Character: After Dalia admits to murdering the "lady in the lake", Bernie gives her his gun, says that no one else knows, and says that she's free to shoot him. She gives the gun back. He left the safety on.
  • Separated by a Common Language: The people of Zurich speak a dialect of German called "Allemanic". Bernie eventually gives up trying to follow along.
  • Shout-Out: Bernie is asked to consult on a Zurich cold case, of a woman who was found murdered in a lake. Meyer the detective fiction novelist says he'd like to write a book about it called The Lady in the Lake. That, of course, is the title of a famous Raymond Chandler novel starring Philip Marlowe, which was published in the same year this story is set. If that isn't obvious, Bernie Gunther the character is an obvious spin on Philip Marlowe, and if that isn't obvious enough, both this novel and The Lady in the Lake turn on the person who killed the lady in the lake switching identities with the victim.
  • Stage Mom: Dalia's mother pushed her into the movies when Dalia would have preferred to study mathematics.
    Dalia: She was always a rather overbearing figure in my life.
  • Stage Name: Dalia tells Bernie that her name is Dragica Djurkovic but she adopted a German stage name for her movie career.
  • Stepping Out for a Quick Cup of Coffee: Minoux is incarcerated in a prison where Bernie's old friend Ernst Kracauer is deputy governor. Kracauer tells Bernie that he can offer no help, then says he has to go to the bathroom and suggests Bernie have another glass of brandy—from the bottle that is sitting on the desk next to Minoux's open file.
  • They Look Just Like Everyone Else!: Bernie makes this exact point at the conclusion of his talk at the IKPK conference. He's talking about Fritz Gormann, the Serial Killer that Bernie caught back in 1928 (a bank clerk and family man)... and also the Nazis.
  • Time Skip: "Almost exactly a year" after Bernie gives his speech at Wannsee, he is summoned by Joseph Goebbels and sent on a mission to Croatia. In the interim the war has gotten a lot worse for Germany.
  • Title Drop: Bernie refers to Dalia as "the lady from Zagreb" a couple of times, probably because it sounds exotic.
  • Trophy Wife: Dalia Dresner, the 26-year-old hot babe film star, married Dr. Obrenivic, a rich man 40-odd years her senior.
  • Young Future Famous People: Among the Historical Domain Characters Bernie meets in this novel is a young Wehrmacht lieutenant, Kurt Waldheim, later Secretary-General of the United Nations and President of Austria.