Philip Kerr’s The Lady from Zagreb (Putnam) opens on the French Riviera, in 1956. But that’s just prologue; the story proper begins in the summer of 1942, in Berlin. Bernie Gunther, a captain in the SD (the Nazi security service, or Sicherheitdienst) has been assigned to the Berlin police, investigating homicides and other serious crimes. But Bernie, despite his barely veiled cynicism and smart mouth, has shown a useful talent for delicate inquiries and judicious solutions on behalf of his Nazi masters. Indeed, he has just returned from Prague, where he solved a murder at the villa of the late SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, head of the German security services, even as an assassination plot unfolded against Heydrich.
Back in Berlin, Bernie finds himself under the direct command of Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, also head of Germany’s gigantic UFA film studios, who has a personal assignment for him: track down the missing father of Croatian-German actress Dalia Dresner (Goebbels, a notorious womanizer, calls her “Germany’s Garbo”), neé Sofia Branković. Bernie falls hard for the beautiful Dalia, who returns his feelings, and sets off into the chaos of wartime Yugoslavia to find her missing parent. The passages set in war-torn Croatia are bone-chilling, not just because of the German SS troops, who routinely shoot first and ask questions later, but more especially because of the ultra-nationalist Ustaše militia, allies of the Nazis but unpredictably and prodigiously vicious. It is among these barely sane irregulars that Bernie finds Dalia’s father, once a priest, now a militia leader known as Colonel Dragan, famous for the speed with which he can slash Serbian necks. Goebbels and Bernie agree to lie to Dalia, telling the screen star that her father is dead.