Detective fiction is perhaps the most trope-heavy genre out there, with the possible exception of Romance. This goes double for Hardboiled fiction, which has several required elements: a cynical, self-destructive protagonist with a strict personal code; a corrupt legal system and decadent society; and a colorful set of villains. Great stuff, but prone to staleness.
Philip Kerr’s genius solution was setting his series in Nazi Germany. This breathes fresh life into a tired genre.
Bernie Gunther, his anti-hero, is a former police detective who was thrown out for opposing Hitler’s rise to power. As March Violets opens in 1936, Gunther is now a private detective trying, in true hardboiled style, to be an upright man in a bent society. Gunther’s clientele is mainly dissidents and Jews, particularly those who’ve disappeared due to arrest or extrajudicial killings.
His remarkable detective skills are also a curse, as the elite of Nazi society continually force him into their service, and Gunther novels frequently intersect with major events and players from the World War II era.
In addition to a fantastic lead character, Kerr’s novels also benefit from strong prose and an incredible depth of research. Kerr peppers his stories with just the right amount of detail, including minutiae that give the whole thing a sense of realism, without choking the narrative flow.
I definitely recommend the entire series, which extends well into the Cold War and brings him into contact with everyone from the CIA to Fidel Castro.