Berlin Noir (1993)
Philip Kerr (1956- )
Is there a more fertile ground for a mystery writer than central Europe in the mid-20th century? The environment of secrecy and violence that existed in Germany in the 1930’s as the Nazi’s gained control of the government and then consolidated their power; the chaos of World War II as fighting raged on multiple fronts across the continent; and the cold war spy games that flourished as the wartime alliances broke down.
At the center of this “huge cauldron in which all historical eras [were] boiling and mingling” (to borrow from Octavio Paz) lay, both literally and figuratively, Berlin. The seat of Nazi power up to and through World War II, it also became a focal point for the machinations of the former allies as they suddenly turned into adversaries fighting to control the future of Europe.
A variety of writers have set their novels in this “cauldron,” and among them is Philip Kerr. In the novel March Violets, Kerr introduced his fictional detective Bernhard (Bernie) Gunther, and Gunther has returned in several subsequent novels by Kerr, the first three of which (in addition to March Violets, these include The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem) have since been collected into a single title, Berlin Noir.
Not content to simply play off the obvious advantages of a mid-20th century, central European setting for his detective novels, Kerr actively and plausibly engages Gunther with several high ranking Nazi political and security officials. Some will be familiar to readers with even a passing knowledge of the history of those times (such as Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler), while others are less well-known (Reinhard Heydrich, Arthur Nebe and the leader of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller). By involving Gunther directly with the events and personalities of the day, Kerr gives the novels several layers of meaning for readers. On one level the stories stand alone as action-packed thrillers that are difficult to put down. But for readers who are interested in the historical background, the novels also provide a fascinating window into the world of that period through the eyes of Gunther as he navigates daily life in 1930’s and 1940’s Berlin and deals with some of the architects and effects of Nazi policy.
Kerr introduces Gunther as having become a private detective after serving for years as a policeman in Berlin. By the beginning of the first novel he has already left the police force, frustrated by the way many of his colleagues had lost their jobs or otherwise been sidelined by the new regime, and angered also by the brutal practices that the Nazi’s propagated through the security services. In these stories Gunther is a man disenfranchised by the events in his city and country, and someone whose unwillingness to hide his opinions often leads him into trouble with dangerous people both inside and outside the government; he knows how to play the game and get along, but struggles to bring himself to do it.
March Violets takes place against the backdrop of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. An industry tycoon’s daughter and son-in-law have been killed, and he hires Gunther to investigate the deaths. Gunther’s work on the case leads him into a crossfire of conflicting interests among high-level Nazi officials. As Gunther roams Berlin in search of answers to his questions in the case, Kerr highlights the political rivalries within the regime, the criminal behavior linked to government supported labor and cultural groups and the growing struggles of the Jewish population: historical fiction at its best, in the form of a crime drama.
The second novel of the collection, The Pale Criminal, is set in 1938, in the months leading up to Kristallnacht, the night during with a pogrom was carried out against Jews throughout Germany. A series of brutal rapes and ritual murders of fifteen to sixteen year old girls is occurring in Berlin, and Gunther is forced by a high-ranking Nazi official to rejoin the police force and from there lead the investigation into the murders. He soon finds himself on a trail that implicates powerful members of the Nazi regime itself in the crimes. As in the best crime dramas, not everything is as it seems, and even supporters cannot always be trusted to be revealing the whole truth.
The last of the three novels in the book, A German Requiem, takes place in 1947, as post-war relations between the Americans and the Soviets are deteriorating almost daily. The story opens in Berlin, with Gunther being hired by a former police colleague who is in jail in Vienna, accused of killing an American officer. Gunther follows the trail of clues to Vienna, where the balance of the story takes place. Reflecting the reality of the period, Gunter finds himself a pawn in a complexly layered and deadly serious struggle for control being played out by the American and Soviet occupation forces.
Kerr writes the stories very much in the traditional manner of crime and mystery novels. There is an extensive slang for the inhabitants of Gunther’s world --- police officers, petty criminals and gangsters --- which takes some getting used to: lighters are guns, for example, and spanners or chocoladies are prostitutes. Similes also fly fast and free throughout the novel --- one of my favorites: “Pipe-smokers are the grandmasters of fiddling and fidgeting, and as great a blight on our world as a missionary landing on Tahiti with a box full of brassieres.”
And the main character, Bernie Gunther, is a classically styled private eye in these novels, in line with other such literary detectives --- hard-boiled but with a soft-spot for a woman in trouble, self-deprecating but with a biting wit, smart and perceptive but not omniscient. Significantly however, Gunther also represents a foil to the Nazis around him and those who support the Nazis through their silence. He makes his dislike of the regime and its policies clear at every opportunity, even when talking to Nazi officials who must often remind him that despite their need for his services, their tolerance for his opinions has limits. Thus Gunther allows Kerr to, in the context of a detective novel, describe and comment on the tragedy of Nazi Germany.
In these novels are straight-forward detective stories for the reader who loves “noir,” but also a fascinating window into Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and central Europe in the early cold war years.
Other reviews / information:
Before being brought together into the collection titled Berlin Noir, the three novels were published individually as:
- March Violets (1989)
- The Pale Criminal (1990)
- A German Requiem (1991)
Rumors about Berlin Noir being turned into an HBO mini-series.
A review of another Philip Kerr novel appeared earlier in this blog: A Philosophical Investigation.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION