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Loving Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther Novels


As some readers of this blog will have noticed, I’m a huge fan of the historical detective novels by Scotsman Philip Kerr featuring his WWII-era Berlin police detective Bernie Gunther. The first, March Violets, was published in 1989, followed by The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem, the latter coming out in 1991. They became known collectively as the “Berlin Noir” trilogy. As Kerr explains in the above video from his website, he put Bernie aside for fifteen years to write other books, including the excellent dystopian thriller The Second Angel, before returning to him in 2006 with the gripping The One From the Other. With the April 2012 publication of Prague Fatale the Gunther series is now up to eight titles.

While the first three books proceeded pretty much chronologically from the early 30s through the war years, the last five books are more varied in their narrative structure. Now, Kerr often flashes back and forth between the pre-war period and the war itself to the postwar period–placing Bernie in ever more morally conflicted situations. We may find Bernie in Argentina in the late 40s, trying to keep his head down, but inevitably running smack into Nazis who’ve fled Europe, often men he’d known or had run-ins with back in the day; a prisoner under interrogation by American intelligence officials investigating Nazi war crimes; or in the company of mobsters in 1950s Cuba*, like The Godfather brilliantly reimagined. But always the narrative returns to Berlin, with Bernie working as part of the Kripo–the Berlin detective division whose operations become increasingly threadbare and corrupt as police resources and manpower inexorably flow to the war and all sorts of morally compromised scum seek haven working in the squad–or working as the house dick at the Hotel Adlon, a once-opulent now down-on-its-heels hostelry.

As is often the case in the Bernie Gunther books, Prague Fatale finds Bernie encountering a real-life figure from the Nazi era. In the new book he’s under the unwelcome thumb of Reinhard Heydrich, SS-Obergruppenführer (a General) and chief of the Reich Main Security Office (including the Gestapo and Kripo), who assigns Bernie to protect him against a possible plot on his life. In her crime column last week, the New York Times Book Review‘s Marilyn Stasio called it “a locked-room whodunit” and the series, “endlessly fascinating,” while in the Louisville’s Courier-Journal reviewer Roger K. Miller wrote that he believes Kerr is the “absolute master of the genre; no one writing in English bests him, not David Downing or Jonathan Rabb, not even Alan Furst.” He continues,

The accuracy and detail of time and place are exquisite — things such as slang, power relationships, views of everyday life—are deftly and unobtrusively worked into the narrative. Deeper than that is what might be called the morality lesson. At Bernie’s core, he remains a once-and-future stoic white knight in the wisecracking Raymond Chandler mode, though life has thrown him blows to the physical, moral and emotional armor such as Philip Marlowe never had to face. Bernie, as ever, is appalled at what he has become. Heydrich, shortly to become the architect of the “final solution,” is possibly the most ruthless figure in the Nazi pantheon of horror. . . . Yet Bernie’s essential decency shines through even this Heydrich-suffused muck.Those who read closely will find further nuggets. As in Field Gray Kerr uses historical points to make contemporary ones; for instance, the SS torturers praise waterboarding as their most effective method. . . .Lovers of literature should learn to love Bernie. He could use it.

Aside from plotting and character, another thing about Kerr’s writing is simply how enjoyable it is too read his sentences. Even when writing about the most arcane and detestable aspects of the Nazi regime, the writing is lucid, fluent, and filled with vivid image-making. If you enjoy reading detective fiction, or books about WWII, and haven’t yet encountered the Bernie Gunther novels, I urge you to begin reading Philip Kerr. I treasure his work, and I believe you will too.

 

*In If the Dead Rise Not (2010), the sixth Gunther novel, Bernie becomes entangled with a killer named Max Reles, a corrupt American businessman colluding with Nazis building the 1936 Olympics facilities, all of them skimming huge profits from the contracting. Reles is every bit as evil as any of the Nazis who’ve ever crossed Bernie’s path. In the narrative’s flash-forward Bernie unexpectedly encounters Reles again almost twenty years later, in pre-Castro Cuba, and the reader learns that Max has come by his homicidal qualities by bloodline. In the novel, his brother was the real-life Abe Reles, aka “Kid Twist,” nicknamed for the maniacal delight he took in strangling his victims. In Weegee-era New York City, Abe Reles made front-page news as a notorious New York mob turncoat who in 1941 turned state’s evidence against his Murder Inc. confederates Lepke Buchalter and Albert Anastasio. Abe was only a few days into his bombshell testimony in front of a  Brooklyn jury, when after-hours, ostensibly under police protection in his Coney Island hotel, he was flung from a high floor, dead when he hit the roof below. Some said he may have jumped, though as it turned out, suicide made little sense, logically or forensically. The certain convictions and complete dismantlement of the mob died with him. Coincidentally, in 2008 I had edited and published a nonfiction book called The Canary Sang But Couldn’t Fly: The Fatal Fall of Abe Reles, the Mobster Who Shattered Murder Inc.’s Code of Silence by Edmund Elmaleh**, so I knew Kid Twist’s story well. Since reading If the Dead Rise Not I’ve checked and double-checked, and have found no evidence that the real Abe Reles had a brother named Max. I’m really taken with the inventiveness of Kerr in creating a fictional sibling counterpart to the vicious Kid Twist in his superbly imaginative novel.

**As an addendum to this admittedly lengthy footnote, I must add that late in 2008, just a few weeks before finished copies of Elmaleh’s book were due to arrive at the offices of Sterling Publishing, where I was then Editorial Director of Union Square Press, I received word that the author had suddenly collapsed and died. Unfortunately, Eddie, as I had come to know him, never got to see a printed copy of what was his first published book. At least he didn’t die by misadventure, as Abe Reles had. Finally, as it turned out for me, my time was almost up too, not in this life, but at that publishing house. In a big layoff two weeks in to January of 2009 I was relieved of my job, a milestone I have written about here on this blog, and which has permitted me much more time to read books like the Bernie Gunther novels.

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#Fridayreads/12-30, ‘Field Gray’ by Philip Kerr, a Bernie Gunther Novel

#Fridayreads Philip Kerr’s Field Gray, a Bernie Gunther novel featuring the detective who’s navigated the amoral world of Berlin before, during and after WWII in seven magnificent books. The latest has especially brilliant plotting, w/the narrative taking Gunther and his memory through all the war years as he endures harsh interrogation from Yanks who arrest him in Cuba in 1954. I find inflections of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib in the book. Kerr is a master. If you’ve never read a Bernie Gunther novel, I urge you to begin the series. March Violets is the first, and I do recommend you read them in order, though one could also just start with Field Gray.

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#FridayReads, Sept 12–George C. Chesbro’s “City of Whispering Stone,” w/Mongo the Magnificent

City of Whispering Stone frontContinuing my theme from last week, today’s #FridayReads is another mystery featuring Mongo the Magnificent, former circus dwarf turned criminology professor and private eye, in City of Whispering Stone, published in 1978, which I read that year, then ordered and sold in my bookstore, Undercover Books in Cleveland, Ohio. The plot of this novel—Book II in a series that would ultimately have fifteen titles—would have been very topical and timely at the time, as it concerns Iranian students in NYC, an Iranian circus strongman who is a member of the troupe that Mongo once performed in as a headliner, and the political fate of the Shah. In real life, this would have been during the Carter administration and amid the tumultuous revolution that ended with Ayatollah Khomeni and the mullahs in control of the country,when American hostages were held captive for 444 days in Tehran. The mullahs have hold power ever since. Chesbro must’ve had a keen line in to the Iranian expat community in the US, because of the depiction of the dissident students reads like a contemporary dispatch from the New York Times. In the novel, the performer/strongman has mysteriously vanished and Phil Statler, impresario of the Statler Brothers Circus, Mongo’s former boss, hires the detective to locate him. The writing is great—noirish and tough, and very good at revealing the mindset of Mongo, an ultimate outsider who’s never fit in anywhere in his whole life. Back in my bookstore days, I never read beyond the earliest books in the series, so in the weeks to come, I’ll go back in the sequence and re-read Shadow of a Broken Man (1977, Book I), then move on to An Affair of Sorcerers (1979, Book III); and The Beasts of Valhallah (1985, Book IV), and perhaps others.

I do relish reading detective fiction and many different mystery series. As readers here may recall, I’ve written before about the novels of Michael Connelly (who created series character LAPD Detective Harry—short for Hieronymous—Bosch); Henning Mankell (Swedish police lieutenant Kurt Wallander); the late Tony Hillerman (Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee), whose series was revived in 2013 by his daughter, novelist Anne Hillerman, introducing new series character, Bernadette Manuelito; Philip Kerr (Munich police inspector Bernie Gunther); John D. MacDonald (salvage expert Travis McGee); and J. Michael Orenduff (author of the POT THIEF mystery series, with protagonist Hubert Schuze, dealer in Native American ceramics). Last year, I wrote an appreciation of one of Mankell’s Wallander books that can just as well apply to all of these series, edited for inclusion in this post:

Henning Mankell’s thriller 2004 thriller Before the Frost, features Detective Kurt Wallander and his grown daughter Linda, who like he had earlier in life, elects to become a police officer. With surprising synchronicity, in Michael Connelly’s Detective Harry Bosch novel The Drop, (my May 10th, 2013 #FridayReads), his young adult daughter informs him that she is going to choose police work for her career. I don’t believe these two writers, one in Sweden, the other in Los Angeles, read each other’s work or have directly influenced each other. Instead, I believe that these authors—who have each written ten or more books featuring their detective protagonist—become extremely invested in their characters and loyal to them, so that in their protean creativity, they endow the two characters—both late middle-aged single fathers—with full lives and late-in-life-joy from growing closer to their children. This highlights one of the things I love most about these books, Mankell’s and Connelly’s, as well as mysteries by other authors I enjoy, featuring characters Travis McGee, Bernie Gunther, and Joe Gunther (no relation to the former), by John D. MacDonaldPhilip Kerr, and Archer Mayor, respectively: The author is so devoted to their creation that they give them full lives, and I as a faithful reader, become devoted to them, too.

City of Whispering Stone back

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#FridayReads, May 24–“Before the Frost,” a Kurt & Linda Wallander novel

Henning Mankell photo#FridayReads Henning Mankell’s thriller 2004 thriller Before the Frost, featuring Detective Kurt Wallander and his grown daughter Linda, who like he did earlier in life, chooses to become a police officer. With surprising synchronicity, in Michael Connelly’s 2011 Detective Harry Bosch novel The Drop, (my May 10th #FridayReads), his teenage daughter informs him that she is going to choose police work for her career. I don’t believe these two writers, one in Sweden, the other in Los Angeles, read each other’s work or have directly influenced each other. Instead, I believe that with these authors–who have each written ten or more books featuring their detective protagonist–become extremely invested in their characters and loyal to them, so that in their protean creativity, they endow the two characters–late middle-aged single fathers in each series–with full lives and late-in-life-joy from growing closer to their own child. This highlights one of the things I love most about these books, Mankell’s and Connelly’s, as well as those by other authors I enjoy–featuring characters Travis McGee, Bernie Gunther, and Joe Gunther (no relation to the former), by John D. MacDonald, Philip Kerr, and Archer Mayor, respectively: The author is so devoted to their creation that they give them full lives, and I as a faithful reader, feel obliged to be solicitous of and devoted to them myself.Mankell photo

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#FridayReads, May 10–“The Drop,” Michael Connelly; “A Man W/out Breath,” Philip Kerr; “Black Count,” Tom Reiss


Friday Reads May 10

I’m so lucky to have so many terrific books to read this weekend and over the coming days. And, after these three, I’ve got a Henning Mankell novel I’ve never read, Before the Frost, a thriller that features not only his longtime series character, Kurt Wallander, but also his grown daughter Linda, who over several earlier books had voiced her ambition to become a police detective, like her father. In fact, the novel is officially dubbed “A Kurt and Linda Wallander Novel,” just as all the earlier ones were “Kurt Wallander” books. Interestingly, in Michael Connelly’s The Drop, featuring his series character Harry Bosch, the detective’s teenage daughter, Maddy, has told her father that she wants to become a police officer.

As I have written in earlier posts about Mankell’s books, I love his books, and all these detective authors for the loyalty over many books that they show to their characters. The cases become more engrossing and their characters more believable and more sympathetic the deeper you read in to each series. This is certainly also true for Philip Kerr’s whose A Man Without Breath I started this afternoon. This is the ninth book portraying Bernie Gunther, the German police inspector trying to somehow stay alive during WWII, while retaining his dignity and moral center, while the Nazis all around him engage in mayhem and corrupt self-dealing. I’ve also posted often about the Gunther books.

As for Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, I met Tom Reiss and heard him read from his book at the National Book Critics Circle annual awards ceremony in March, and was enchanted by what I heard of his biography of Alexandre Dumas’ father. More recently, his book won the Pulitzer Prize. I read Chapter One last night, in which Reiss explains how he came to discover the elder Dumas, a remarkable figure who had been all but lost to history. I’m really eager to get back to his book, and so glad I have this nonfiction to balance all my novel reading.

Please note, if you want to read any of the books I’ve written about in this post, I’ve embedded links in each title. If you click on them, it will lead you to pages at Powell’s Books where you can order them. As I explain in a note near the upper right corner of this site, they then return a portion of your purchase price to me to help maintain this site.

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#Fridayreads/March 2

#FridayReads Misogyny, the late Jack Holland’s modern classic, a thorough study of what he calls “The World’s Oldest Prejudice,” to help me understand current events. Just starting If The Dead Rise Not, an electric Bernie Gunther WWII-era thriller by Philip Kerr.