Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Tribute to David: Bob Douglas

David Churchill (1959-2013)

Given the sad passing of our friend and colleague David Churchill, we've decided to honour him in a manner totally fitting to our memory of him. Since he was such a strong advocate of Critics at Large from the beginning, he was quick to initiate ideas. One thing he was quite fond of were omnibus projects like the Remembering 9/11 collection (which led to our first e-book) and the Titanic 100th Anniversary commemoration. Therefore, we felt strongly that we could best salute our late columnist by creating an Omnibus of David. From April 16 until April 24, we plan to publish – daily – the best of David Churchill as chosen by our writers.

Today's piece is from Bob Douglas.
The Editors at Critics at Large.

I met David Churchill when we both played Sunday softball games about thirty years ago. He was reviewing films with Kevin Courrier at CJRT-FM, and because the radio team needed more players, I was invited to participate. Even then his enthusiasm made him a powerful presence. After the team disbanded about five years later, I had no contact with David until 2011 when I contacted him shortly before my first volume was to be published. He had self-published his novel, The Empire of Death, and I was interested in the ways he promoted it. He was most generous with his time and support for my book. After it was published, he conducted an interview with me that was posted in Critics at Large. When I posted my initial piece in January 2013, he was the first person to welcome me aboard with a wonderful email. Unfortunately, it was about that time that he became ill and we had little future contact. Had David lived, I am certain we would have had many lively exchanges and some disagreements. With his passing what I will most remember and treasure was his generous spirit.

When Kevin invited the writers at Critics at Large to choose one of David’s pieces and to write an introduction, I read back over his pieces and was impressed by the wide range of his interests – film, television, theatre, politics and books – and the infectious brio that infused what he liked and the mocking disdain for what he abhorred. Since we both shared a passion for the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr, I decided to choose one of these reviews.

David Churchill took great delight in writing about the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr. He wrote three reviews of this series for Critics at Large. Although we did not always agree – he was far more critical of Prague Fatale – you always knew where David stood and his reasons for taking that critical stance. What David understood most about Kerr’s novels was that plot was always secondary to atmospherics and character. David keenly appreciated the research that Kerr undertook whether the novel focused on Nazi Germany or Batista’s Cuba. Although we learn about the texture and mood of the eras that Kerr is writing about, perhaps even more important is the character of Bernie Gunther himself. Gunther possesses an idiosyncratic moral code reflective of the times, where one does not hesitate to lie, cheat and murder in order to survive. David seemed to savour Gunther’s world-weary cynicism, his way with alluring women and the basic noir elements of Kerr’s novels. As a tribute to David, I am reposting his review of Field Grey.

Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011), titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, is available now. For more information, please visit


A Well Not Dry: Philip Kerr's Field Grey

If this were (and I'm not saying it is) the last book in Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther books, I would still be a very satisfied reader. It's not that Field Grey is the best of the now-seven novels, but there's a mournful, elegiac quality to this book that suggests a fascinating road perhaps leading to an end. The majority of the book is set in Germany in 1954 as Gunther tells stories to interrogators. This one begins shortly after the close of the last novel, If The Dead Rise Not (2009 – reviewed by me here). Gunther is not-so reluctantly coerced into helping a pretty, young female Castro rebel escape from Cuba to Haiti (Gunther, in the best noir tradition, has always been a sucker for a pretty face). During the journey across the Caribbean, Bernie's boat is captured by the American Coast Guard. Through slightly contrived circumstances, Bernie is identified, arrested and imprisoned first in New York, then Germany. He is suspected of war crimes.

Gunther has always been a fascinating character. A detective before and during the Nazi years in Berlin, he is no Nazi (he despises them – well, actually, Bernie hates pretty much everybody: Americans, British, Russians/Communists and the French, particularly the French), but he is a survivalist, so he didn't always stand up to Nazis. The times he didn't step up, he would have certainly been killed if he had. Sometimes he witnessed and even participated in some pretty bad things, but his moral code of trying to do the right thing as much as possible repeatedly saved both his skin and his soul. Bernie did some of the things he is accused of (shooting unarmed partisans in Eastern Europe during the war), but only after they had slaughtered many innocents themselves.

Unlike the other six books in the series, there really isn't a murder to be solved here (except a minor killing part way through the book when Gunther is thrown into a Russian POW camp after the war). This book is about Gunther coming to terms with how he's lived his life and the things, good or bad, that he's done. Therefore the book is filled with numerous, mostly well-handled flashbacks from 1931 through to 1946, including, for the first time in the series, events that occurred during the actual war years (all the other books took place before or after the war). Finally, we are made privy to the details of the things Gunther had only alluded to in the previous novels. Kerr has always been masterful at presenting the world we are travelling through. His research has always been impeccable, and I've always come away from his novels learning things I've rarely gleaned from non-fiction books on the subject. This book is no different. Kerr is also unafraid to let us dislike (if not hate) Gunther in this book as Bernie constantly rails against most of the Allies and their people (Canada gets a free pass, so I guess he liked us, or more likely we were unimportant).

Author Philip Kerr

In this outing, which is not quite as good as If The Dead Rise Not, at least Kerr doesn't seem to be trying so hard to evoke the tough-guy noir writing that sometimes marred Rise Not.

There were two of them. They had intense, birdlike faces, five o'clock shadows that appeared just after lunch, damp shirt collars, nicotine-stained fingers and espresso breath. They were cops or something very like it. One of the men, the heavier smokier, had very white hair and very black eyebrows that looked like two lost caterpillars. The other was taller, with a whore's sulky mouth, ears like the handles on a trophy, and an insomniac's hooded, heavy eyes.

We have been very fortunate with this long series. Too often a writer returns to the well one, two, three or four times too many (Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels, for example) ruining a good thing. Perhaps because Kerr took a 15-year break in the series (A German Requiem, the last book in the so-called Berlin Noir trilogy, was released in 1991; the first book in this group of four, The One From The Other, was released in 2006) he has managed to keep it fresh. Whether he plans to write anymore I have no idea, but if he wants to finish a third trilogy (and the books can be divided like that), I'd certainly not object. Field Grey is currently only available from Britain (published by Quercus) for approximately £18, including shipping. It will be released in Canada by Penguin Books in March 2011. 

originally published on November 10, 2010. 

David Churchill is a film critic and the author of The Empire of Death. Go to for more information.

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