Exploring cross-cultural influences in crime fiction: Philip Kerr
Editor’s note: National literatures do not evolve in vacuums. In this episode of Crime Corner, our illustrious Nordic noir expert, Jerry Holt, explores the work of Philip Kerr, a British author whose writing has had a profound impact on Holt and his Norwegian colleague and friend, Gunnar Staalesen.
“I glanced around the four bare, silent walls at my half-empty bottle and my hopeless game of chess. I was alone, all right. Outside my window, people were walking up and down the street. But they might as well have been on Saturn, for all the good it did me. Sometimes the profound silence of the room scared me, because it seems to echo something silent within myself. Across the street, at the Church of St. Catherine of Siena, a bell began to toll.”
—Bernie Gunther, A Quiet Flame
If you take out the reference to the Church of Saint Catherine, which locates the reader in Buenos Aries, the above paragraph could easily have been lifted from a Raymond Chandler novel: the never half-empty bottle, the portable chess set, and, of course, the loneliness perfectly reflect Chandler’s world-weary Philip Marlowe, who never took on a case that didn’t plunge him further and deeper inside that loneliness that Marlowe wore like a fitted trench coat.
In fact, Gunther is himself a sometime private eye like Marlowe—but that is when he is not working as a Berlin harness bull at Berlin Alexanderplatz, the center of Germany’s police activity. And then, of course, sometimes Bernie is a house dick at the very upscale Berlin Adlon Hotel, and—horrifyingly—even a card-carrying SS member (in order to survive).
He turns up in all these settings and more (Buenos Aires, for example) in the 14 novels that Philip Kerr wrote about Gunther before the author’s untimely death last year. Along the way, we follow Bernie’s extremely checkered life as he navigates the mean streets of Nazi Germany between the late 1920s and the early 1960s.
The character Bernie Gunther, you see, is no Nazi—and therein likes the source of his extreme loneliness. In fact, he hates Nazis and reserves a special circle of hell for Der Führer himself, Adolph Hitler. If we trace Bernie’s history closely, we find that his own beloved wife was a victim of Nazi medical experiments with smallpox. He fits in nowhere—except as the kind of occasional vigilante who can sometimes score a small victory against his swastika-wearing overlords. The books, with their varied time zones and varied locales, inevitably provide such opportunities for him, since Bernie, like Chandler’s Marlowe, is dogged in his pursuit of righting the wrongs of an oppressive regime in any small way he can. The difference is that Bernie’s solitary war is against the Third Reich, while Marlowe’s is more often against the web of organized corruption that was Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s.
Kerr, whose death from bladder cancer came as a great surprise to most of the crime fiction community, was—and remains—very popular in Norway, where he enjoys status as both a darling of the reading public and a writer’s writer, claiming fans like Gunnar Staalesen, whose own P.I. creation, Varg Veum, is nothing less than Bernie’s soulmate, even though they would have to time travel to actually meet.
Thus our shared pursuit of literary crime writing went into mourning at the occasion of the British-born Kerr’s demise. And it did indeed seem bittersweet that Metropolis, Kerr’s last published Gunther novel (that we know about) offers us young Bernie, working as a very young cop in a Berlin that sounds very like the one theater- and movie- goers encountered in Cabaret or that cable TV were entranced by in Berlin Babylon—as in young Bernie with a a lot to learn.
Bernie runs into some interesting characters in this book, quite a few of them real. Variously, he will encounter Thea von Harbou, estranged wife of Director Fritz Lang, who is busy making his hellish vision of a near future named Metropolis. Far more chilling are Bernie’s run-ins with the blood curdling Dr. Mengele, who did Nazi experiments on children or Adolph Eichmann, who is a sort of running character in these novels. But then, so is Hitler.
And Kerr clearly enjoyed writing these exchanges, where Bernie usually gets to throw the Nazi in question some serious shade. Of course these exchanges, if they are to be believable, require some serious research—and Kerr’s is evidently impeccable, to judge from his many accolades from experts.
But Kerr is also a prose stylist as well: these layered novels can be very dense, as in John le Carré dense. And of course they are peppered by Bernie’s first-person narrative skills, and they are straight out of 1940s Warner Brothers. “The smell of tobacco is the most wonderful smell in the world when you are facing death,” Bernie confides to us. Or describing an opponent: “He had a face like a mop…a wet one.”
In the novel that would turn out to be Kerr’s swan song, we see a very young but already very jaded Gunther take over the so-called “Murder Commission” with the goal of finding a serial killer who seems to be cat-and-mousing the cops. But how can you tell in a world like that of Berlin where lying is a way of life—a city drenched in, as Gunther puts it, “ cologne and hypocrisy.”
If you like your crime fiction a little more challenging and you have not yet met Bernie, you might want to. I was initially put off by the prospect of immersion—and deep immersion—in the hell of Nazi Germany. In point of fact, I discovered these novels in the midst of a three-week trip to Germany in 2006 as part of a group of scholars who were using the events of the Holocaust in their classrooms. Long since, Bernie Gunther continues to have the very effect on me that our dark treks through the execution chambers had on me then: “This is history that we cannot afford NOT to know.” How else can we begin to deal with a world where—and here Bernie directly quotes the film Chinatown: “In the right circumstances a human being is capable of….anything.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.