Over the last two years, I've discovered the fiction of Philip Kerr. His Bernie Gunther series was both a suspenseful, intelligent mystery series and an example of finely told, atmospheric historical fiction, set in 20th century Germany.
As the editor of the monthly digital magazine The Big Thrill, I pursued an interview with Kerr. He agreed. But on the eve of the interview, Philip Kerr died. Here is the story I wrote:
"That's the thing about real life; it all looks so implausible right up until the moment when it starts to happen. I have my experiences as a police detective and the events of my own personal history to confirm this observation. There's been nothing probable about my life. But I've a strong feeling that it's the same for everyone. The collection of stories that make us all who we are only looks exaggerated or fictitious until we find ourselves living on its stained and dog-eared pages."
So opens the novel GREEKS BEARING GIFTS, the 13th in the Bernie Gunther series, written by Philip Kerr. Through the publicist for Putnam, his U.S. publisher, Kerr, a London resident, agreed to his first interview with The Big Thrill, a story that was planned for this month's "International Thrills" column. Before the interview could be completed, Kerr died of cancer on Friday, March 23rd.
His long-time editor Marian Wood said, "Working with Philip Kerr was the kind of experience all editors hope to have. In the twenty-plus years we worked together I found him responsive, funny, brilliant, and totally committed to his writing and hence, to being edited as long as he thought the editing was serious. He was an amazing human being and I will always miss him. At the moment, there is a huge hole in my life. I suspect it will stay with me as long as he lives in my memory—which means, as long as I live. He was special. More people might do well to learn that from his work and his ways."
Nearly 30 years ago, Philip Kerr’s novel March Violets introduced the character of Bernie Gunther, a sardonic, hard-drinking detective. What made Gunther a bold choice of character was that in the series he is a detective working in Nazi and post-war Germany. Gunther always loathes the Nazis and is known for his defiant, abrasive nature. But he is also a survivor. When no less a Nazi than Reinhard Heydrich of the SS orders him to serve as "his number one trouble shooter" within the police, he has no choice but to agree. Gunther solves murder cases in the midst of war, whether in Berlin, the city that owns his soul, or on the edges of battlefields, in prisons, at Nazi retreats, or, later, in German communities in Argentina, France, and Cuba. Mysteries in which the crimes of individual murder are solved within a time of horrific war casualties have been written before, as in the excellent Foyle's War series. Bernie Gunther, however, is always in a state of conflict over his feelings for his own country: He loves Germany while feeling shame, bitterness, and a certain incredulity that he has survived as long as he has.
Photo credit: Nina Subin
"Gunther is one of crime fiction's most satisfying and unlikely survivors: the good cop in the belly of the beast," wrote Jane Kramer in The New Yorker.
Kerr, born in Scotland, took a law degree but rather than practice law he worked as an advertising copywriter at the Saatchi & Saatchi agency in London. He traveled to Berlin frequently, "curious about the influence of German Romanticism on the country's legal philosophy," according to The New York Times. Kerr began to wonder what Raymond Chandler would have done with Philip Marlowe in Berlin rather than Los Angeles. "It tickled me a little bit to try and inhabit that same noir period."
In Prussian Blue, the 2017 novel nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Novel by the Mystery Writers of America, Gunther's story runs on two timelines: While working in a hotel in France in 1956, a powerful old enemy, Erich Mielke of the East German Stasi, tells him he must travel to England to murder a woman he once slept with. Determined not to comply, Gunther escapes his Stasi handlers and, without money or contacts, sets out on a desperate journey across France, trying to reach the country that is probably the worst choice of all but one that is reeling him in: Germany. In the earlier timeline, 1939, Gunther, riding high in the police commission, is ordered by Heydrich to solve a murder at Hitler's retreat, the Berghof, before the Fuhrer learns anything has gone wrong at his alpine paradise. Faced with savagery in both timelines, Gunther tries to be a moral man. At moments it's impossible not to think of the fate of the 20th century as it's embodied in this fine, flawed character.
In the 13th novel in the series, GREEK BEARING GIFTS, Gunther is hiding under a false name in Munich, working as a night porter. "Of course when I say I was a night porter, it would have been more accurate to say that I was a mortuary attendant, but being a night porter sounds better when you're having a polite conversation," as Bernie puts it. But after a policeman recognizes him on the job, he is pressed into taking part in a scheme to steal money from a general. Bernie, always shrewd, catches on that he's not expected to live after the end of this particular robbery, and he turns the tables on the corrupt cop who recruited him, in a tense action sequence. This all leads to a new job for Bernie as an insurance investigator, and he's sent to Greece to look into a suspicious ship sinking. Naturally, a string of gruesome murders pull him into an inquiry, and he has no choice but to delve into the dark side of the Cold War, just as the European Union is being born.
Bernie Gunther cannot be discussed without including his weakness for curvaceous young women, and GREEKS BEARING GIFTS introduces a fine specimen in Elli Panatoniou, a Greek lawyer in her thirties. In full Bernie Gunther leer, he thinks upon meeting her that "Every part of her was perfectly defined. Each haunch, each shoulder, each leg, and each breast. She reminded me of a diagram in a butcher shop's window--one of those maps concerning which cut comes from where, and I felt hungry just looking at the poor woman." Inevitably, Bernie and Elli fall for each other. But when things go badly (as they nearly always do with his amours), something quite unusual happens in a Bernie Gunther book. He lets her walk out on him with an unmistakable sense of relief:
"The age difference was only one thing. There was something else, too, and again, it wasn't her fault. The fact was I didn't have the patience for any woman, not anymore, and not just her. I'd probably been on my own for too long, and I guess I preferred it that way."
Bernie Gunther struggles through a difficult and dangerous case in GREEKS BEARING GIFTS. He comes to terms with his own past and has a fragile yet undeniable hope for the future. But still, in the end, he is alone.
Philip Kerr is survived by his novelist and journalist wife Jane Thynne and their three children.
Photography credit (home): Nina Subin
Photography credit (top): Phil Wilkinson