There’s an obvious chicken-and-egg question that arises in an interview with British author Philip Kerr. A thorough pro, Kerr has penned stand-alone novels in various genres, including science fiction, and a first-rate preteen fantasy series (Children of the Lamp). But he’s best known for seven thought-provoking novels featuring German private eye Bernie Gunther. A note-perfect Berliner, from his alcohol consumption to his instinctive antipathy to authority, Bernie is both an everyman striving to maintain his humanity (and his life) in the Nazi and postwar eras, and the Teutonic reincarnation of Raymond Chandler’s PI, Philip Marlowe.
So which came first, noir or Nazis, an interest in hard-boiled detective stories or in the Third Reich? “Germany—I went there long ago,” the 55-year-old replies, “to do a post-grad degree in philosophy of German law. Really, just an excuse to read German philosophy. You know how Bernie hates lawyers? That’s because I hate lawyers.” Immersed in German history, Kerr—like so many writers before him—fell under Berlin’s spell. “Its role in the world wars and the Cold War, its cultural influence in the 1920s—Berlin is the ur-city of the 20th century.”
And the city’s inhabitants won him over too, partly because Berliners had, in Kerr’s opinion, the right enemies—any group loathed by Bismarck and Hitler couldn’t be all bad—and partly because of their black humour, which “sounds cruel if you don’t understand it,” Bernie once remarked, “and even crueller if you do.” Rather like the detective’s comment during his harrowing if brief stay in the Dachau concentration camp, where he met an inmate who was not only Jewish but homosexual and a Communist: “That made three triangles. His luck hadn’t so much run out as jumped on a f–king motorcycle.”
Kerr wanted to set stories in Berlin and he admired Chandler’s writing. Enter the wisecracking Bernie Gunther, born in 1898 and a Great War veteran, who made his debut in three novels published from 1989 to 1991, and later repackaged in a single volume, Berlin Noir. As the first novel opens in 1936, Bernie—who despises the Nazis but spends a lot of time trying not to think about what’s become of his country—has taken a commission from a wealthy industrialist. (That means trouble, of course: in noir only a job offer from a dame is more sure to go wrong.) By volume two, it’s 1938, Bernie’s been in Dachau, war looms on the horizon—and it’s much harder for anyone to bury his head.
Kerr closes the trilogy with a brilliant imaginative leap. The third novel simply skips over the entire war, leaving readers to wonder exactly how Bernie spent it. A survivor if there ever was one, he’s back at work in the bitter winter of 1947, in a Berlin now as much a physical as a moral ruin, negotiating with a prospective client for a fee worth having: 50 kg of coal. And there Kerr, who always worries he will “write one book too many” in any given series, left him for 15 years.
Kerr came back to Bernie in 2006’s The One From the Other, mostly, he says, because author and character were then of an age—Kerr 49 while writing it, and Bernie the same in it—and it was time to reflect on the past. (“My own age always informs my writing,” Kerr laughs. “In the trilogy Bernie often gets the girl; now, not so much.”)
In the newer novels, though, especially the just-released Field Gray, Bernie—when not engulfed in his current Cold War troubles—is looking back not at his sexual conquests but at his war. Drafted into the SS, he was hip-deep in morally murky war crimes—in one case executing 30 Soviet secret police who had just killed 2,000 political prisoners and a handful of German POWs. “You could say they had every right to do so given that we had invaded their country,” Bernie notes. “You could also say that our executing them in retaliation had less justification, and you’d probably be correct on both counts.”
Bernie’s “saint-sinner tightrope is very thin now,” Kerr says, making him all the more interesting to write about—and to read about as well. Bernie Gunther, who survived the Nazis and the Red Army, may yet be crippled by self-loathing.