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Entries in Philip Kerr (6)


Metropolis by Philip Kerr

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on April 9, 2019

Philip Kerr died in March 2018. He is survived by a memorable body of work. About half of Kerr’s novels record the career of Bernie Gunther, from Berlin police detective to private investigator to investigator for a Nazi intelligence agency to POW to private detective again to fugitive. Gunther is one of the most interesting and complex characters in crime fiction.

Metropolis is Kerr’s last Bernie Gunther novel, published posthumously. Other than the first three, which were written as a trilogy, they can be read in any order, as they jump around the stages of Gunther’s life, following no particular chronology.

Metropolis tells the story of Bernie Gunther’s promotion from Vice to the Murder Commission in 1928. His first assignment involves the murders and scalping of four prostitutes near Berlin’s Silesian Station. Unemployment is rampant, forcing more women onto the streets, sparking waves of violence, and leading to clashes between communists and Nazis. Fritz Lang wants to make a film about mass murderers and his wife, who is writing the script, meets with Bernie to get the juicy details about the scalpings. The novel shares the title of Lang’s best-known film which, like the book, contrasts a beautiful and cultured city with the injustice suffered by its workers.

A second serial killer appears before the Murder Commission can get a handle on the scalper. This one is shooting disabled war veterans, apparently practicing a form of eugenics to make a point about patriotism. Since the deaths of veterans make bad press, the police are told to drop the first investigation (the victims are just prostitutes, after all) and to focus on the new killer. Bernie goes undercover, a new concept in police work, as he plays the role of a legless veteran on a cart, serving as bait for the killer. Like most undercover operations, the effort does not go as planned, but it does lead Gunther’s investigation in new directions.

Metropolis is a classic detective novel with the kind of intricate plot for which Kerr is known. The reader and Gunther consider an array of clues and possible suspects as they try to identify the killer(s). The resolution is satisfying and surprising.

The time frame allows Kerr to consider the limits of democracy. “What use is it when it can’t deliver a viable government?” Gunther asks. Another character opines: “There’s only so much democracy that one country can take before people get tired of the idea.” Unfortunately, as the rise of Hitler demonstrated, authoritarians use democracy only to undermine it. They appeal to weak minds and get themselves elected by demonizing scapegoats. Gunther is an intriguing character because he managed to survive without losing his humanity in a country that repeatedly chose hatred and ethnic purity over tolerance and empathy.

Vigilantism is another theme. Bernie finds himself arguing with vigilantes who do not believe killers deserve a fair trial. With as much crime and injustice as Gunther has seen, he might be tempted to agree, but he understands that civilization depends on applying the same rules of fairness to the best and the worst equally. The concepts of fairness and equality, of course, will soon be lost in Gunther’s Germany. Gunther is, in the words of one character, “guarding an empty safe,” yet the safe will never be replenished if people like Gunther do not stand up for principles.

The historical settings always make Bernie Gunther novels fascinating, but the novels succeed so admirably because Gunther is such a fascinating character. Dark, snide, jaded, but as honest as circumstances allow him to be, Gunther is a perfect noir character. Fans of crime fiction will miss him.



Greeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr

Published by Marian Wood Books/Putnam on April 3, 2018

Having returned to Germany at the end of Prussian Blue, Bernie Gunther is now Christof Ganz, a hospital mortuary attendant. He washes the dead, a fitting job for a man whose life has spent his life surrounded by death. A second job as a pallbearer suits him just as well. But being near Munich, it’s only a matter of time before a cop recognizes him as an ex-cop.

The cop spends his off-duty hours working as a private detective. The founder of the All-German People’s Party (GVP) has hired the cop to determine whether the GVP’s new donor is still a Nazi. The cop is planning a double-cross and threatens to expose Gunther if Gunther doesn’t help him carry out his plan.

By the time that story concludes, Gunther has a new job as an insurance adjuster. His boss send him to Athens, where a claim has been made for a ship that was lost in a fire at sea. The ill-tempered German owner of the ship is a bit mysterious, in part because he carries a gun wherever he goes, in part because he’s refusing to make a claim for artifacts he recovered on a dive that he says were lost when the ship sank.

One murder later, Gunther finds himself chasing a Nazi war criminal named Alois Brunner who has adopted a new identity and whose connection to the ship owner is not immediately clear. Gunther also needs the help of a German scapegoat who is sitting in a Greek prison, the only German the Greeks have been able to find who might have some connection to the Nazi occupation, so they want to throw the book at him. Gunther hopes the man can lead him to a bigger fish and thus appease the Greek authorities he’s helping so they don’t hang him for the murder, notwithstanding their knowledge that he didn’t commit it. Gunther also needs to help a Mossad agent from Israel or face the prospect of catching a bullet in the back.

Greeks Bearing Gifts features the moral conundrums that make Bernie Gunther novels so worthwhile. Is it morally acceptable to betray a casual friend if the friend enriched himself at the expense of Holocaust victims? Is it morally acceptable to enrich yourself at the expense of Holocaust victims who are going to die anyway? Is it morally acceptable to withhold information about marital status from a woman who is interested in you if you fear that the woman plans to shoot you after she seduces you? Bernie is far from perfect, but his life is instructive as he struggles toward morally sound answers to those questions and others.

The plot of Greek Bearing Gifts has elements of a whodunit and a police procedural, but it isn’t either of those. Bernie manages to puzzle out all the connections between the sunken ship and the dead bodies, but as is usually the case, the real puzzle is not whether Bernie will get the girl (although he has a chance to get one), but whether he will still be alive at the end of the story. The plot ultimately turns on complex international relations after World War II, but the story works because of the morally complex life of Bernie Gunther.

It seems like each new Gunther novel shifts the direction of Gunther’s life, and this one is no exception. I’m not sure I will like the new direction Gunther is taking (I would hate to see him freed from the moral quandaries that define him), but we’ll see. While not as suspenseful as some Gunther novels, Greeks Bearing Gifts pushes all the morally ambiguous buttons that fans of the series have come to expect.



Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr

Published by Marian Wood Books/Putnam on April 4, 2017

As is common in Bernie Gunther novels, Prussian Blue tells two stories. One is set in the present (1956), the other in the past (1939).

In the present, Gunther’s old nemesis, Erich Mielke, offers him a chance to return to Germany, all debts paid. He only needs to kill a woman who was featured prominently in The Other Side of Silence. Mielke has in mind a death by poison and wants Gunther to carry out the plan in England. Of course, Gunther fans know that he isn’t a perfect person, and is shaped by the circumstances of an imperfect world, but he isn’t somebody who readily commits murder, particularly one that he’s ordered to commit. And so Gunther begins another odyssey, this one taking him on a treacherous journey back to his beloved Germany.

On the way to his destination, however, Gunther takes a few breaks to remember his earlier life. The 1939 story, and the bulk of the novel, involves a murder investigation. Reinhard Heydrich assigns Gunther to visit Martin Bormann in the Bavarian mountain village where Hitler keeps his vacation home. The victim is a seemingly unimportant civil servant, but Bormann doesn’t want anyone getting away with a murder in Hitler’s residence. Hitler, after all, would be unhappy, perhaps with Bormann. While Bormann praises the “family values” of the rural residents who are loyal to the Nazi party, he wants Gunther to learn which of them is the murderer. The list of suspects is almost unlimited, since villagers are being forced to sell their homes at low prices to Nazi officials while working triple overtime to complete construction on the various building projects that serve only to glorify the Leader.

As series fans know, Gunther is opinionated. He doesn’t like Nazis or the French or the British or Bavarians or almost anyone who isn’t a Berliner. Being opinionated is good because it gives Gunther a personality, but it’s bad when he expresses the same opinions over and over. Lengthening a Bernie Gunther novel with redundant opinions is problematic because Gunther has such a dark cloud over his head that sticking with him for more than 500 pages is enough to trigger the onset of depression in even the most well-adjusted reader.

Nevertheless, Gunther novels are always interesting, and they always maintain a steady pace despite Gunther’s contemplative digressions. Gunther makes it to page 16 of this one before someone beats him up, and that pattern continues as Gunther is repeatedly shot at, wounded, beaten, and generally abused throughout the course of the novel. It’s no wonder he’s unhappy, although his displeasure with life has more to do with the fact that he can’t be an honest police officer with so many wicked people running his country.

Prussian Blue lacks the gut punch of my favorite Bernie Gunther novels, but the 1939 story is a good police procedural that keeps the reader guessing as Gunther uncovers clues to the killer’s identity. The 1956 story sets up another chapter in Gunther’s life, another change, another chance, another novel, and another opportunity to see where Gunther’s dark life takes him.



The Other Side of Silence by Philip Kerr

Published by Putnam on March 29, 2016

Living in the beautiful French Riviera, Bernie Gunther is almost paradoxically suicidal, but he’s bored and he misses being a cop in Berlin. Working as a concierge, Gunther is using the name Walter Wolf to conceal his past as an SS officer. The year is 1956. Gunther meets, beds, and falls in love with a writer who says she has been commissioned to write a biography of Somerset Maugham. To her apparent good fortune, Gunther’s passion for bridge brings him within the small circle of local friends maintained by Maugham, although Maugham intends to use Gunther for purposes other than filling the fourth seat at the bridge table.

Maugham is being blackmailed. Maugham’s embarrassment involves a sexual indiscretion with a well-known Russian double agent during an era in which the British espionage agencies were overflowing with Russian spies. The blackmail threat has been delivered by someone Gunther happens to know, giving him a chance to reflect upon the past. The reader is therefore treated to stories from 1938, when Gunther was working as a private detective in Berlin, and 1944, when he was an SS lieutenant (having been demoted after an unfortunate incident with Goebbels).

I never read Philip Kerr’s novels expecting scintillating prose, although The Other Side of Silence is a bit more graceful than some of Kerr’s work. Rather, I read them in the expectation that Kerr will deliver a strong plot and even stronger characters. The Other Side of Silence did not disappoint me on either front. The plot is clever, inviting the reader to guess which characters are betrayers and which are betrayed. The intricacy of the plot is worthy of the real-life deviousness of the Russian double agents with whom the story intersects.

Gunther continues to be one of my favorite characters in crime fiction. I admire the complexity with which he is crafted. The point of all the Gunther novels is that principles are easy to live by when they come without a cost. When the choice is between a principle and survival, or between a principle and the torture and murder of the people you love, principles are not so easy to follow. Gunther’s life is an illustration of the tension between survival and principle. The Other Side of Silence does not add new facets to Gunther’s character but it sharpens those with which fans of the series will be familiar. The novel’s other characters -- particularly Maugham -- are also given rich and believable personalities. The characters and the intriguing plot make The Other Side of Silence a welcome entry in the Gunther series.



Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr

First published in the UK in 2011; published in the US in hardcover by Marian Wood/Putnam in 2012 and in paperback by Penguin in 2013

Noir is dark by definition, but Bernie Gunther is at his gloomiest in Prague Fatale. He's coping with the ugly events that marked him in earlier novels. It is 1941 and Bernie is back in Berlin. After harrowing experiences in Belorussia, feeling that he is merely "a blur" of the man he once was, Bernie entertains thoughts of suicide. When he looks at the mangled body of a man hit by a train, he sees himself. He is inspired to live only by the knowledge that so many Jews with so much less have soldiered on.

The mangled body is that of Geert Vranken, who came to Germany from Holland in search of employment. That his death was neither an accident nor suicide is clear from the multiple stab wounds that cover his torso. Bernie makes little progress in the death investigation until he saves a beautiful woman named Arianne Tauber from a mugging. Arianne eventually tells Bernie an intriguing story about an envelope she was hired to deliver that has now gone missing. The information causes Bernie to investigate the death of a Czech spy before he is summoned to Prague by General Heydrich, in whose pocket Bernie unwillingly resides. At that point Prague Fatale turns into a locked room murder mystery, giving Bernie a chance to exercise his considerable detective skills.

Because Prague Fatale is a murder mystery linked with a spy mystery, the plot is even more intricate than is common in the Bernie Gunther novels. The mystery's resolution isn't entirely unexpected but the setup is clever. A plot twist at the end is too often foreshadowed to be truly surprising, but it is nonetheless satisfying. A final twist seemed to be tacked on as an afterthought. The Nazi intolerance of (and hypocrisy toward) homosexuality is one of the novel's better themes, given that gay men are among the forgotten victims of Nazi tyranny.

By now, Bernie Gunther fans are so used to the character that his understandably bitter complaints about his life are taking on a broken record quality. He gives voice to his fears of what the Nazis are doing to him, and to Germany, so often that it becomes a numbing mantra. Prague Fatale would have been a tighter novel without the frequent repetition of Bernie's angst. Still, that's a relatively minor quibble. Bernie Gunther is who he is (as he often tells us), and that's what makes these novels so absorbing.