Edgy Nazi-era Berlin detective

2010-02-24 00:00

BRITISH author Philip Kerr’s six ­novels about the Nazi-era Berlin ­detective Bernie Gunther are growing in popularity with fans of clever, witty, historically accurate detective thrillers — the most recent, If the Dead Rise Not, being published late last year.


Bernie Gunther first appeared in March Violets in 1989. The first three novels came a year apart, and then there was a long break before you brought Bernie back in The One from the Other in 2007. Why did you leave him for so long? And did you always plan to continue the series?

I checked into writing to write novels, and not a series. In the beginning I wanted to write novels the way ­Kubrick directed films: I wanted them to be very different. So for a while I just wrote what I wanted and said to hell with what people want to read.

But after a while, if you’re lucky, the readers find a way of letting you know what they want and if you’re smart you listen to them. That’s what happened to me. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write more Bernie books, merely that I wanted to do some other stuff, too.

Way back when, writing a series seemed too cosy for me. I felt I had to take some risks, which is how I came to write what I think is probably my best book: A Philosophical Investigation.

You know, a lot of crime writing is just cookie-cutter stuff. Each pastry shape looks the same. My baking is more random, a little less predictable, I hope. What I’m saying is, I’ve made mistakes. It was 16 years between A German Requiem and The One from the Other.

I feel a sense of privilege that I was given the opportunity to bring the character back. I can’t think of many who have had that opportunity. ... I think the best thing that could have happened to Bernie is that I left him alone for sixteen years while I grew up as a writer.


What is the fascination of Nazi ­Germany for you? Is there a feeling that the horrors must not be forgotten?

Well I certainly feel that what ­happened must never be forgotten. Nor will it be, although from time to time people do try. For me the Nazi era is the most important event in ­history since the Reformation and, interestingly, that also started in ­Germany. And of course Martin Luther was a rabid ­anti-Semite. He and Adolf Hitler have a lot in common. Luther was struck by lightning; Hitler was gassed in the Great War and suffered hysterical blindness. Both men suffered a kind of revelation.

What happened in Germany ­continues to resonate today. The post-war Jewish diaspora continues to be the dominant feature in Middle Eastern politics. The post-war ­decline of the British Empire will continue to have a knock-on effect on ­Africa and the Indian sub-continent. If I’m fascinated (have been ever since I did a post-grad degree in ­German philosophy) it’s because there’s so much there with which to be fascinated.


Bernie is no saint — he’s flawed, sometimes violent and although anti-Nazi, he is not actively protecting their victims, except on an individual, ad hoc level. But he’s a hugely sympathetic character. How did he come to your mind?

I wanted to write about a real man with real dilemmas. An everyman German. I tried to project myself into his gumshoes so to speak. I wanted a man who loved his country but ­hated the Nazis.

Like most people he’s not a hero. But he’s not a villain either. I rather think a lot of people have it in them to be different people at different times. One day Bernie might do something good and brave; another day he might do something opposite. Most of the time he is just trying to get by. In my opinion, that reflects ­reality. ... I think I just like moral complexity.


The Bernie Gunther novels have been called “Chandleresque”, mainly because of the dry, deadpan humour. Is Raymond Chandler a deliberate model? Or is this style of writing something that particularly fits the era of the books?

In the beginning it was a little bit of a joke. Chandler went to school in England and then went to live in Los Angeles to write dark novels about corrupt businessmen and cops. I wondered what kind of novels he might have written if he’d gone to live in Berlin.

Anyway, I think I’m luckier than him in that this period affords me the opportunity to write much more ­political novels which masquerade as crime novels.

I can describe a crime story that takes place to the front of the stage while backstage something much more horrible is taking place. That provides me with a wonderful echo.

Plus I can bring on villains from Nazi history who are much nastier than anyone I could devise myself. And it’s challenging to get under the skin of these characters.

Style: I like this style. Another ­favourite writer of mine is P. G. Wode­house who went to the same school as Chandler. I wonder if they shared the same English master.

Anyway, what those writers have in common is a love of descriptive writing that also seeks to entertain. It seems to have gone out of fashion with the stylistas. But I just love it. The thing I like best about Chandler is the way he describes a scene so brilliantly, like a chef making an ice- cream sundae, and then, right at the end, he puts a cherry on top that makes you smile.

Style makes humour. These books would be very depressing without Bernie’s sense of humour. It’s his one true act of resistance. And authentically Berlin. Berliners do have this sense of humour. Go into a shop in Berlin and ask for some advice. For example: “I’m interested in this computer”. Salesperson: “Good for you. I’m interested in football. ...” They’re rude and they don’t care.


There is fascinating detail of the places where the novels are set. How do you research pre-war Berlin, a lot of which no longer exists? And Peronist Argentina, fifties Cuba, forties Vienna, etc?

Without meaning to make myself sound like a jerk I think of myself as like a pointillist painter. Seurat for example. Little spots of colour detail don’t mean much up close. But when you take several steps back you begin to see a whole that provides a very vivid snapshot of reality.

So, I go places with a notebook and make a sketch of words about a place, or a person and later work that into a book, just like Seurat.

I’m not really interested in the present and the here and now. I have to live there in my body. I don’t have to live there in my mind. Herein lies the great freedom and pleasure of reading and writing.


Are the Bernie Gunther novels available in German translation? And what reaction have you had from German readers?

Oh yes. The last time I was in Berlin I found my books on the Berlin desk alongside Isherwood and Le Carr é. That was a very big moment for me. Those writers are like gods to me.


If the Dead Rise Not won the Crime Writers’ Association’s Ellis Peters ­Dagger historical award late last year. Do awards make a difference to you?

Well, this is a new thing for me. I don’t think they matter much to me. But I think they matter a lot to publishers who are trying to sell one’s books, which is hard enough, let’s face it. Anything helps. It hasn’t made me big-headed or conceited. Not yet. But ask me again when I’ve won something else.


As well as thrillers, you have written a fantasy series for older children, The Children of the Lamp . How easy is it to move between the genres?

I love this. It’s like being a schizophrenic. I get to be two kinds of writers. Most important of all, when I’m writing for children I get to be a boy again, just like Peter Pan. What could be nicer?


And what does writing for children need that writing for adults doesn’t? Or vice versa?

With kids you can’t write down to them. You have to take that kind of writing as seriously as you take writing for adults. It’s a different way of writing.

I get to trust my imagination more when I’m writing for kids. That’s my real luxury. To let go. I hate to talk about painting again but it’s like ­being Matisse. You know your craft. You can draw. But it takes real nerve to abandon the sophistication of the adult urbane world and find the simplicity of a child.


You may not want to answer this, but can Bernie’s fans expect another in the series? And will he get back to post-war Germany?

Yes. I’m writing one as we speak.


• Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels are, in chronological order: March Violets ; The Pale Criminal ; A German Requiem ; The One from the Other ; A Quiet Flame and If the Dead Rise Not .

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