Monday, April 13, 2009

Una Llama Misteriosa

I just finished reading Philip Kerr's A Quiet Flame, and like a lot of others, I enjoyed it quite a bit. The magic of the book, indeed the whole Bernie Gunther series, is Kerr's ability to convincingly bring to life (in)famous people and incidents from the mid-20th century in a nearly pitch-perfect Chandleresque voice. That no doubt takes significant research, but also requires an eye for the telling details that are best used to convey character and a facility for sharp, clever description and dialogue.

To be sure, Gunther is no Marlowe. He's what Chandler's improbably romantic hero might have become if he was born German and lived through the horrors and atrocities of the Nazi era: more hard-bitten, more cynical and more interested in plain old survival.

A case in point for those of you who've read A Quiet Flame is what Gunther does at the very end of the book. Without giving too much away, it's pretty clear to me that if Marlowe were in Gunther's shoes at that juncture, he wouldn't have boarded the train to leave Argentina. (I personally would have caught the earlier one!)

Another particular thrill for me in reading the book was the realization that A Quiet Flame--with its story of exiled Nazis in Argentina in the time of Peron--contains a character in common with my forthcoming book, The Big Wake-Up. While you noodle on how that is possible without me being guilty of plagiarism, I'll add that both books also feature a particular sidearm: what Gunther refers to as a Parabellum, and my private eye protagonist August Riordan calls a Lugar. (And that, he said with a wink, is all for now on the similarities between the two books.)

Jeff Pierce of The Rap Sheet has pointed out that the cover of the US edition of Flame features a stock photo of a woman holding a gun that has been used for the covers of several other books, including a paperback edition Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely. The picture of the woman actually fits quite well with the plot of Farewell, but there is no similar scene of a woman holding a gun in Flame, so quite apart from its overuse in other novels, it doesn't really fit the book.

A far better cover than the one done for the US (or the UK edition, for that matter) is the one done for the Spanish translation:

We may assume that the blue-eyed man in the photo is Bernie; certainly the detail from the letter at the bottom has a stamp with a portrait of Hitler, but what, you may wonder, is the significance of the object in the background beside Bernie's head? The Washington Monument? A V2 rocket?

Kerr has said in interviews that he did not travel to Argentina to research the book, so even he might not have an answer to that question. However, as my wife and I did visit Buenos Aires in December, 2007, I can quite readily identify the object for you: it's the Obelisk in the Plaza de la Rep├║blica.

In effect, then, the cover juxtaposes Bernie between Buenos Aires--official, governmental Buenos Aires, no less--and his legacy with Nazi Germany: a pretty good visual shorthand for the themes in the book.

A final tidbit to be gleaned from the cover is choice that was made for the translation of the title. The Spanish publisher apparently decided that "a quiet flame" might be a little obtuse and went with "a mysterious flame" instead.

For more on the historical underpinnings of A Quiet Flame, check out this blog post by Ron Rosenbaum wherein he quotes an e-mail sent to him by Kerr.

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