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May 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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Novelist Philip Kerr’s death on March 23 from cancer at the young age of 62 came as a blow to the author’s devoted fans across the world. As one of those fans and a reviewer of Kerr’s books for many years, I was shaken by the news, especially as I had only recently finished my review of Kerr’s latest novel, Greeks Bearing Gifts, the twelfth in his celebrated Bernie Gunther series, starring the cynical German detective whose storm-tossed career—always on the wrong side of authority—extended from the Weimar Republic through the nightmare of the Hitler era and on to his regret-stained postwar years. Kerr wrote across many genres, including historical fiction, stand-alone thrillers, and children’s books, but it is the Gunther novels for which he is most revered. I never had the opportunity to meet Kerr, but over more than 25 years, I grew very close indeed to Bernie Gunther, and I will miss him terribly (though, like other Bernie devotees, I await with a mixture of eager anticipation and deep melancholy the final novel in the series, Metropolis,which was completed before Kerr’s death and will be published next year).
The idea of a tough-talking Chandlerian detective, cracking wise in the presence of Göring, Goebbels, Heydrich, Bormann, and a host of other equally lethal Nazis, was something new in crime fiction when March Violets, the series debut, was published in 1989. Available in an omnibus edition titled Berlin Noir, the first three books in the series—The Pale Criminal (1990) and A German Requiem (1991) followed March Violets—are all set mainly before WWII, in 1930s Berlin, during the last hurrah of the Weimar Republic, when Cabaret-style decadence made merry to the backbeat of high-kicking Nazi storm troopers. These early novels, especially the first two, make great use of the hard-boiled style, juxtaposing its smart-alecky insouciance against the gathering storm and creating biting dramatic irony as our own knowledge of what is to come in Germany cuts deeply against the grain of Bernie’s cleverest rejoinders.
As satisfying as the early Bernie novels are, I believe the series grows into something much deeper, darker, and more resonant as it progresses, and the hero, no longer naive, moves from almost gleefully provoking the powerful—confident that he holds the moral high ground—to realizing that the world has shifted under his feet: to survive as an individual in an era of totalitarian terror will require a new kind of cynicism, one that moves well beyond cracking wise. Not that Bernie ever stops talking back to everyone in his way, but in the later novels, the verbal jousting comes without the side of glee and with a double serving of fatalism and moral ambiguity in its place.
There is something else that makes the middle and later Bernie Gunther novels the richest in the series: Kerr is an absolute master at stage-managing parallel narratives across different time periods. Starting with A Quiet Flame, in 2009, Kerr began to jump, within the same book, between Bernie’s increasingly stoop-shouldered postwar life and his experiences before and during the war. A tricky narrative strategy, to be sure: readers who love the Berlin Bernie will be thrilled to return there again and again, but will they have patience to hang on when the story jumps back and forth from Germany in the past to, in the case of A Quiet Flame, Argentina in Bernie’s present? The answer is a resounding yes.
Kerr connected his parallel narratives with consummate skill: a trip to the movies in 1956 on the wrong side of the French Riviera (The Lady from Zagreb, 2015) prompts Bernie to remember being shanghaied by Joseph Goebbels into helping prevent a famous actress from leaving Germany; Bernie’s interrogation by Americans out to prosecute war criminals (Field Gray, 2011) launches a three-part narrative that hops between prewar and Cold War Berlin, with the eastern front in 1943 straddling the two. In all of Kerr’s time-jumping narratives, the plots are interconnected, with what happens in the past clarifying action in the present, and vice versa. It is seamless and always compelling, and the strategy enabled Kerr to show us just how and why Bernie’s marrow-deep cynicism has evolved, slowly morphing into black despair, like whiskey gradually eating its way through a defenseless liver.
And yet . . . along with defenseless livers, there is plenty of wit in Bernie’s world. Yes, Kerr consistently found new depths of despair to explore in a character who has seen too much of the world at its worst, but Bernie never loses the ability to turn horror into the blackest of black humor. Sometimes it’s bursting the bubbles of the pompous—albeit the evil-soaked pompous—as when he calls Martin Bormann “a burly middleweight going to seed, with a proper double chin and a nose like a parboiled turnip.” Other times, though, the humor comes from finding a darkness that mirrors his own in a landscape that many would see as glamorous. Here’s Bernie describing a village on the French Riviera: “Cape Ferrat is a pine-planted spur that projects into the sea like the dried-up and near useless sexual organs of some old French roué.”
I’ll grant that perhaps the Bernie Gunther novels aren’t to everyone’s taste. Bernie’s life comes without any happily-ever-aftering, no doubt about that; but, for me, there’s something downright bracing about encountering a character who never quits talking back to the world, even when that world has turned off its hearing aid. Thanks, Bernie. You’ve been a good friend to me.
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