Thursday, April 15, 2010

Books: Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir

Many years ago, when I was trying to come up with a good idea for a novel, I hit upon the notion of setting a murder mystery in Nazi Germany before or during the war - I don't quite remember which. I thought of having the hero work as a private detective in Berlin. I mentioned this idea to a friend of mine who said, "Oh, you mean like Omar Sharif in Night of the Generals?"

Yeah, uh, just like that. I dropped the idea, but Philip Kerr didn't. He went on to write an acclaimed series of novels about Bernie Gunther, a former Berlin cop who worked as a private investigator in Nazi Germany. The novels, now numbering six that go under the broader title of Berlin Noir, are set before or after the war, but not during. Now, I have no illusions that if I'd stuck with the idea that I'd ever come up with anything nearly as fantastic as Kerr has. His six books do many things well. First, they are well-structured murder/political mysteries, they’re exceptional character pieces, and third (and probably most importantly), his series of books has given me a far greater understanding of everyday life in Nazi Germany than most histories I've read. None of the books shy away from the rampant anti-Semitism of the time. In fact, in the early books, Gunther's clients are frequently Jewish asking him to look into the disappearance of a loved one. A Quiet Flame, the fifth book, even raises many disquieting questions regarding Argentina's anti-Jewish policies after the war.

The books, published in two groups (the first three in 1989 to 1991, the second three 2006 to 2010), cover a lot of ground: March Violets is set in 1936 as the Berlin Olympics unfold, The Pale Criminal in 1938 just as the war is ramping up, A German Requiem in 1946 after the war, The One From the Other in pre-war Palestine and 1949 Munich, A Quiet Flame in 1932 Berlin and 1950 Argentina, and If the Dead Rise Not in 1934 Berlin and 1954 Cuba). Gunther is, like most hard-boiled detectives, a flawed man trying to come to terms with the things he has done to survive. Some of the things he does are pretty awful, but in a world where only the strong survive, he had to do them or die. And if nothing else, Gunther is a survivor. He tries to do well by everybody who deserves it, but he's a failure in many things, especially as a husband and lover. As the novels have progressed through the mid part of the last century, you see Gunther's veneer, which was already pretty firm, harden into cast iron of abusive cynicism.

To my eyes, Kerr's research is impeccable. Details little or big are so brilliantly evoked that you actually believe you are inhabiting this violent, brutal world as you read. The just-published latest, If the Dead Rise Not, is probably the richest of the lot. It is un-put-downable; I even read it in a rainstorm under a leaky umbrella (how's that for a hard-boiled image?). If the Dead Rise Not is actually two long novellas held together by the relationship between Gunther, a woman he loves, Noreen Charalambides, and Max Reles, a rather despicable American business man. The first part is set in Berlin in 1934; the second part in Havana in 1954. Kerr lets the 'mystery' develop very slowly in the first part because what he's really writing is a character piece (it's what he's always been writing), and I for one was grateful for the slow pace. The second part's mystery is slight, but it was never the point here either. We grow to understand Gunther's deepening cynicism in a world that still doesn't give a damn. Something happens near the conclusion of this book that made the hairs on my arms stand on end, a phenomenon I've never experienced before.

It is not to say that the book is flawless. Some of the hard-boiled speak can get a bit much at times:

"A woman with a face like Erasmus and a pink pig's bladder of a hat was reporting a burglary to a duty sergeant whose outsized ears looked as if they had belonged to someone else before being sliced off and stuck on the sides of his dog-shaped skull with a pencil and an unsmoked roll up".

And yet, I wish I could share with you the book's last paragraph - it's deeply moving - but I cannot without spoiling it. This is a journey you must make on your own. I envy those of you out there who have yet to discover these books, because now you get to read them for the first time. But do yourself an enormous favour and start with March Violets (the first three novels are available as an omnibus volume called Berlin Noir) and immerse yourself in Kerr's world.

Oh yes, and a seventh volume, Field Grey, comes out in the UK this autumn. I can hardly wait.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.


  1. excellent review.
    i got this book last week and was wondering if it were good. so how many books are in the series?

    Bonafide Blogger

  2. David Churchill responds: Hi Sarah. Currently six (this was the sixth, if you're talking about IF The Dead Rise Not). There is a seventh, Field Gray, that, I think, has just come out in the UK (Canada in March 2011). They are all worth reading.