31 Oct 2011

Philip Kerr and war-time Berlin

I have recently read the so-called Berlin Noir trilogy, in which the author, Philip Kerr, conducts his hero/anti-hero, Bernie Gunther, through and around the war years in Berlin. Kerr actually skips directly talking about the war period itself, although much reference is made to it in the third novel of the trilogy. In these three books, and in a fourth one that I also read called The One from the Other, which takes place mostly in Vienna, and follows on from the third book the Berlin trilogy, Kerr shows a main character, Bernie Gunther, who oscillates between jobs as a policeman/detective and that of a private eye. He shows, perhaps above all, considerable insight into the place and the period. I had not read anything by Philip Kerr before, and was very impressed by the sense of reality and detail that give these books so much substance, making them so instructive to anyone who is just a little it curious about this very strange part of recent European history that has been, to a large extent, swept under the carpet of past shame and infamy. And yet, as we all should know, if we are not able to understand recent history, we will be far less likely to avoid making the same mistakes as those who went before us.

These novels by Philip Kerr appear in fact almost like historical novels, with the mysteries solved (or not) taking a back seat to the reconstitution of what Berlin was like, for this kind of man anyway, immediately before the second world war, and so under the rising nazi regime, and then afterwards during the allied occupation and the struggle for power in a wasted Europe between Soviets and Americans. And, as an aside on this third novel, Kerr is totally realistic, as the English and the French occupiers are almost totally absent from the contest! 

Scottish author Philip Kerr
What is particularly interesting, and unusual, in Kerr's novels, which I suppose one would have to classify under the "crime" tag (horribly simplistic, I know), is that Bernie Gunther, his character, is a little ambiguous and cannot be given a clear-cut "good guy" role. Gunther is clearly anti-nazi however and takes constant risks by regularly making fun of the nasties and their stupidity, but he is neither a suicidal resistant nor a total hero in any sense of the word. He encounters both Heidrich and Himmler and, to some extent, compromises his thoughts by lying low (morally speaking) during these encounters. Bernie is a survivor, and tries to make the best decisions in order to survive, without totally betraying his ethos or going under to those he despises. In other words, Bernie Gunther is very human, fallible and yet endearing, partially by his weaknesses.

The sheer detail of places, political and police organisation, and the events that set the framework for these novels makes me think that Kerr might have a training as a historian. Maybe. In any case I have not learnt as much about this period of German history since reading the wonderful  and utterly revealing "Diary of a German" by Sebastien Haffner, which was published postumously.

The three novels have been republished in a single volume:
Berlin Noir" "Bernie Gunther" trilogy, republished 1993 by Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-023170-0.

In order of appearance, and in their time sequence, their titles are:
March Violets. London: Viking, 1989. ISBN 0-670-82431-3

The Pale Criminal. London: Viking, 1990. ISBN 0-670-82433-X

A German Requiem. London: Viking, 1991. ISBN 0-670-83516-1

Read on.....


  1. Funny. I read this book last week (French Poche version). Loved it also, although it is not a little somber. Black wine would suit it. Cahors, I mean.

  2. Not a bad idea for the wine match, although Champagne and Riesling were probably the wines most drunk, at least in the pre-war period in Berlin. Hard not to be somber, given the period and the events.

  3. Hard to be sober !
    Somber, I don’t know: Les Boys do cabaret etc ....
    By the way, David, I started your Branimir Šćepanović guy not later than y’day.
    Introduction by Dauzat is a real pain in the butt, what a huge heap of nonsense !
    Went through it till the bitter end and ... was not in the mood anymore for the text. Had to accept a rain-check very soon after I got started. Next time better.

    Meantime, I’m improving my knowledge on the circumstances around Patrice Lumumba’s murder in Katanga and must admit occidental “law & order”, Belgian in this case, gives me the itch. It makes for fascinating reading, though.

    Can’t Britain help the Greek to get out of the euro area ?
    You share another thing in common: the Parthenon’s frieze, still partly exhibited at the British Museum, in spite of the Greek reclaiming it.

  4. I skipped the intro. Suggest you do the same.
    Will refrain from comments on the other subjects.

  5. Mr. Cobbold, You are using an image of author Phillip Kerr which is my image. You are in breach of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 in using my image unauthorised. Please remove it immediately. Mr. L. Parnaby.