** The following may contain spoilers **
A good decade has been spent rifling through Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series.
Many will be familiar with Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy, which features the Scottish author’s first glimpse of Bernie Gunther’s world: a Berlin cop who spends his time on the seedy streets of the German capital (and many other cities and countries in later novels), trying to solve crimes and untangle bureaucracy whilst being enmeshed in political corruption. All this amid the nightmarish, torrid surge of the Nazi Party.
With a metaphor-rich style and turn of phrase so agile it’d run rings around a penny, Kerr delivered the kind of prose that has the reader shaking their head in disbelief. So astute, it almost draws contempt, particularly to aspiring writers, who’d probably consider calling quits after engaging with Kerr’s razor-sharp delivery.
One of the many feats Kerr conquered with the Bernie Gunther series was his unbridled capacity to blur the lines between the quintessential paperback thriller and the hard-boiled classics of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy,.
While Kerr’s rugged dispatches occupy the shelves between Lee Child, Ian Rankin and Karin Slaughter – usually at the WHS Smith on the way to the terminal gates before a summer holiday – Kerr had a lot more in common with the former above-noted crime touchstones.
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Make no mistake, this is the apex of historical crime fiction. Kerr’s level of research in order to bring Gunther to life is beyond staggering. Reading a Philip Kerr novel is as much a history lesson as it is escapism. It’s no secret why there was such a gap between the third novel, A German Requiem (1991) and the fourth, The One from the Other (2006).
Years were spent burning the midnight oil amid the fusty smell of weathered hardbacks and threadbare carpets of the library. From The One from the Other, another eight books followed before Kerr’s untimely passing in March 2018, with a further two posthumous releases, Greeks Bearing Gifts (2018) and Metropolis (2019).
With a whit as sharp as a butcher’s blade and a cynicism that would make most others seem like fatal optimists, Gunther is a wildly unique specimen that has adorned many pages over the last three decades.
Lee Child once described Gunther as “one of the greatest anti-heroes ever written”. He’s half right: there’s no one better.
From the desks of “the Alex” and later as a private investigator at the Adlon Hotel, Gunther, a member of the DSP, was swiftly coerced into the Nazi Party in order to save his own skin. With blackmailing highly ranked Nazi officials at every turn, Gunther spent a life time thinking on his feet. It was the only way he could survive.
In turn, with his life in constant danger, Gunther committed a slew of unspeakable atrocities over the years and Kerr leaves no stone unturned when describing these.
This is the thing about anti-heroes, however. No matter how heinous their crimes, you still hold a degree of sympathy for them. It’s human nature, and the way Kerr weaves dark humour through the array of death and destruction in which Gunther either commits or holds first-hand knowledge of, it’s the kind of feeling one gets when reading the works of Kurt Vonnegut or John Irving.
Juxtaposing such grotesque events with dark humour is a very special talent indeed and, given the subjects at hand, Kerr may be the finest architect of evoking this type of emotion from the reader.
Always one for schnapps, Gunther’s alcoholism was seldom called into question until Kerr’s final dispatch, Metropolis, with Gunther’s superiors wary of his antics as he ambled through the doors of the Alex “smelling like a brewery”.
Throughout Metropolis we are subjected to a young, fresh-faced Gunther. (Kerr jumps back and forth through time, meaning it is not essential to read this series in chronological order.) His cynicism hasn’t fully flourished, despite being a veteran of the First World War. He’s not green, per se, but Gunther’s persona during these final pages is merely formative. The wit and charm (particularly around the opposite sex) are there, but it’s Gunther’s cynicism that is the true core of his character.
Gunther is a sentimentalist at heart. Particularly with the ladies, whereby his dalliances with the opposite sex were many. Even in the darkest and vilest corners where humanity stirred, Kerr still highlighted the fact that love and longing transcend all. By using Gunther as his vehicle, it was arguably Kerr’s finest accomplishment during these 14 novels.
In any case, our final encounter with Gunther is an interesting one. Prior to his death, perhaps Kerr was too far down the road with the final two novels that, in his opinion, this was the logical conclusion? After all, the final two novels seem anything but rushed, with Metropolis arguably ranking as one of Kerr’s finest in the series.
Some claim that Gunther should have been dead at least four times by page 50 (especially during early parts of the series), but you have to give leeway to Kerr here; he’s just using his licence as a purveyor of fiction.
While Kerr’s ’90s stand-alone novels and, more recently, the Scott Manson trilogy, were all admirable in their own right, these works pale in comparison to Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series. Here is where Kerr’s legacy will only strengthen in the years to come.
Add to the belief that the novel (much like the album) is caught in the wild undertow of social media and receding attention spans, thus rendering it as a fading art form. If this were true, then there are two questions.
Firstly, is Philip Kerr the last of the great modern day crime novelists? If so, then the second question is this: will we ever see a better anti-hero than Bernie Gunther?
5 replies on “Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series – an afterword”
Love the Bernie Gunther series.
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Nice piece, so thanks for posting. However, in all the articles I have read on Bernie Gunther (not that many, to be honest), there is one writer that is noticeable by his absence – Ross Macdonald. I cannot think of a writer whose style, tone or indeed talent comes so close to Philip Kerr’s.
But even more striking is the nature of the lead protagonists of both..
To read these authors’ works feels as if Lew Archer had found themselves in Weimar Germany, or Bernie Gunther was somehow transported to 1950s California – doppelgängers in different circumstances.
The comparison of Bernie Gunther with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is common, but the case for a Lew Archer comparison is stronger.
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Kerr’s Gunther juxtaposes the eternal dilemma of a moral individual in an immoral society and certainly the dog days of the Weimar republic and the onset of Nazism provide a rich background to essentially document one person’s struggle to maintain some kind of dignity through the constant manipulation , coercion,brutalisation and corruption of the individual and society. Quite rightly Gunther is a sentimentalist but what shines through is his morality however warped it becomes as we follow his journey from police captain to private detective to his integration into the SD and on to his post war life there is always a sense of his trying to do the right (good) thing in the face of overwhelming oppostion and sometimes to his own self disgust he cannot always square the circle. He readily admits to his own flaws and inadequacies being used by much cleverer people (Heydrich) to wheedle out what we as the reader do not even see until the reveal. Kerr’s ability to set his stories against and amongst some of the most vilest acts and people in a factual historical context eg Krstallnacht leaves a better understanding for those not aware as well as a damn good read.
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