Tuesday, 17 September 2013

If you haven’t read Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, what the hell have you been doing for the last 24 years?

I can’t recommend the Bernie Gunther thrillers highly enough. If, some some odd reason, you also managed to miss my previous post (read it here), let me recap: Bernie Gunther is a private detective in Berlin. He served for 12 years as a homicide detective in the Kriminalpolizei, but was purged for not being a party member. A decorated First World War soldier, he is well hard and extremely sardonic (as Berliners are reputed to be). He ends up joining the SS. The novels are extremely well-written, insanely readable and their atmosphere impregnates one’s subconscious for all time.

My favourites are the first three novels in the series: March Violets, The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem, which span the period 1936-1947. The last of these was published in 1991, and all three appeared in one volume, entitled Berlin Noir, published by Penguin in 1993. At £4 per novel for the paperack, and less than £3.50 for the Kindle edition, it's the best money you'll spend all year (buy the trilogy here).

Kerr, who turned to writing after realising, while studying law at Oxford, how much he despised the legal profession, put Bernie on ice for fifteen years (during which time he produced a whole number of equally brilliant novels, including A Philosophical Investigation and The Shot) but has subsequently added another six titles to the canon). I loved the first of these, The One From the Other (2006), set in Munich in 1949. After that, Bernie gets to travel abroad (albeit still surrounded by Nazis), and the series - while still highly entertaining - loses something.

In the early novels, Gunther’s dealings with Hitler’s main henchmen are ridiculously gripping and convincing. Parallels have been endlessly drawn between Bernie Gunther and the likes of Philip Marlowe and Same Spade – and no wonder: having the Nazi top brass interact with a private detective (often working for them) reveals them to be the sort of greedy, power-mad, psychopathic  but believable gangsters that pepper the pages of classic hard-boiled American detective fiction. Like Chandler, Kerr portrays his monsters as three-dimensional characters - particularly Goering. (I was strongly reminded of Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, in which Stalin, the most prolific mass-murderer of them all, is convincingly drawn as a deeply inadequate, insecure, rather farcical human being who suffers from insomnia and spends the early hours of the morning ordering executions and purges and churning out illiterate pseudo-scientific claptrap.)

The translations of the Bernie Gunther novels have a large and enthusiastic readership in Germany, where there is apparently no equivalent fictional character. Perhaps German writers feel it would be too offensive to the rest of the world to place their mass-murderers in such a seemingly flippant "entertainment" context, or to introduce us to a hero who – no matter how reluctantly – serves time in the SS.

Tom Hanks (lovely bloke, apparently) has acquired the rights to the Bernie Gunther novels, and a TV series may eventually emerge from the inevitable development hell into which the project appears to have sunk. Hanks (who, on a visit to the Kerrs’ home, entertained their children with his full range of character voices, including Woody from Toy Story and Forrest Gump) is obviously too old to play Gunther. And he wouldn’t have been right for it anyway.

The real shame is that  Kerr’s first choice for the role, the great Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, is now also far too old for the part. If Brandauer had been given the opportunity to bring even a fraction of the shimmering genius he displayed as the actor and theatrical director Hendrik Hofgen who sells his soul to the Nazis in  the astonishing Mephisto (1981) – one of the greatest performances in 20th Century cinema – the Bernie Gunther films could have been as good as the books.

Fingers crossed they eventually get something sorted out for the small or big screen. We need some kind of reward for being subjected to tosh such as Luther and Whitechapel.

On a personal note, Kerr’s wife, Jane Thynne, who as I mentioned, has just started a series of spy novels which also begin in 1930s Berlin (of which the well-received Black Roses is the first), is a very, very nice person. My wife designed and made gifts for all the participants at the Chiswick Book Festival (a box cunningly made to look like a hardcover book). Two days after Jane Thynne’s appearance at the Festival, she sought my wife out in church, where we were waiting for another talk to begin, and thanked Mrs. G profusely for having produced such a lovely present. Very classy woman, Jane Thynne. I haven’t yet read Black Roses – but I have no hesitation in enthusiastically recommending it!


  1. Oh yes - the Bernie Gunther novels are tremendous although the "middle period" ones (involving Bernie's adventures in Latin America) were, as you imply, rather formulaic. The recent ones show a welcome return to form by Kerr, so much so that Bernie has joined Travis McGee in my pantheon of fictional good (and tough) eggs.

  2. I remember reading a couple of Philip Kerr's novels a few years ago [on your recommendation]. They were excellent. Of course, he is a Scot [Edinburgh born] as are all people worth a damn in these Isles. He also worked in the advertising business [ Y&R, Saatchis' ?]. Every sinner has a past, but every sinner has a future.