I’m going through a phase of reading thrillers and only thrillers. I love the craft of them. I love the page-turning anxiety. I love a flawed but ridiculously competent protagonist; moral but occasionally indecent; a rough diamond. I love it when the story speeds along, twisting and turning, swerving left and right but never off the road as we uncover the complex web of secrets and lies and death. I love a satisfying crescendo that sweeps me towards the ending, eventually tying all the loose ends up in surprising and clever ways. I love feeling, in those hours of reading, that I too am uncovering something of this complex world we live in.
I’ve just finished Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy. I read all three in one big gulp. The first Bernie Gunther novel – March Violets – is set in Berlin just before World War II, the second – The Pale Criminal – is set during the conflict and the last one of the trilogy – A German Requiem – is set in the period just after the armistice when the city is divided up by victorious nations and the Berliners are broken and cowed. The first was published in 1989 and the other two followed in quick succession. Then there was a pause of fifteen years where the author left bombed-out Berlin and the Nazi’s behind, dusted himself down and wrote children’s books amongst other things. I can see why. It’s a dark and haunted world he inhabited while writing. But in the end, Kerr was obviously drawn back into the fractured post-war Europe of his private agent and began to search for Nazi war criminals in the Czech Republic.
So, I’ve come a bit late to Bernie Gunther. Yet, the former police investigator turned private detective is all I could desire from a protagonist. He’s the wise cracking, quick firing, anti authoritarian, hot-blooded male who likes a good-looking dame in the mould of all the classic 1950s American detectives that we’re all familiar with. He peers into the abyss and just about loves humanity enough not to drink himself to death. As expected, he wears his wide brimmed felt hat low over his eyes and flannel suits. And by using a recognisable type in a foreign landscape, Kerr immediately draws us into his story of unwieldy Gestapo power and corruption. It surprised me that this character worked in a German context, but he did. We follow Bernie as he uncovers blackmail plots and corruption at the highest levels of the Nazi party; the reliance on drugs of various members of the Nazi elite; a crime where an old associate is set up for a murder that he didn’t commit; the former rulers trying to escape trial by leaving the Fatherland along complex pathways set up by clandestine groups of supporters. The stories brim with tension and danger.
Over the three books we meet various infamous characters, like the young and alarming Himmler in his extraordinary castle built like a Brother’s Grimm fantasy. We walk through the great towering edifices in Berlin that were designed to represent Hitler’s ideology, and then pick our way over the burnt out ruins. We don’t meet the Fuhrer himself, though we experience the efficient and brutal organisation of the Nazi government. But the Berlin Noir trilogy is really a series of books about the ordinary people who live ordinary lives beneath a repressive system of political belief; the policeman and the waitress who are trying to carry on with ordinary things; the criminals who made a fortune from misfortune. People trying to put meals on the table and scrape together an existence while navigating the latest edict against the Jews and avoiding punishment. It’s easy to forget that blindly following the majority is the usual way of living a life, for all of us. This trilogy is about the general mass of Berliners who ended up on the wrong side of history and lost everything; who suffered war like everyone else.
Having grown up in London, my perspective of the World War II is very much shaped by the Allied victory; the terror of the Blitz, which led my father and his siblings to be evacuated to the US; my grandfather’s stories of air fights against the Japanese in Sri Lanka; my husband’s family escaping Vienna and the gas chambers. War is an incoherent and terrifying mess that only becomes clear at the end. The ordinary German people who were only Nazis because they saw no other choice are forgotten in the narrative of victory. They are simply part of a block of evil. One of the reasons why I read historical fiction, thrillers or otherwise, is to open up our narrow perspective on events.
I’ve not read Phillip Kerr’s later Bernie Gunther novels yet. I believe that he’s written another nine in the series since 2006. I wonder if he’s managed to retain the fine balance of a classic detective novel and a nuanced story about Berlin during the World War II in the later books? Or whether they became one or the other?