This post takes a detour from German politics to reflect on some of my favourite historical fiction set in Germany, written by the late Philip Kerr. The two themes aren’t so different. Politics needs to be understood in the historical context, and well-written and well-researched fiction can play a valuable role in bringing that historical setting to life. Without a doubt, Philip Kerr’s books have added colour, texture and depth to my imagination of Berlin in the 1930s and 1940s.
Kerr is best known for his Bernie Gunther series about a Berlin police detective (we’ll come back to him shortly), but he also wrote a trilogy of thrillers set in the English Premier League and in the world of international football. Scott Manson, former Arsenal player and erstwhile manager of (fictional) London City, is tasked with sorting out all kinds of dubious matters — often landing in even more trouble of his own along the way. Then there are several stand-alone novels. Prayer is a menacing thriller that takes a sudden supernatural turn; I remember reading it at bedtime and being too spooked to turn off the light, so had to stay awake and finish it. But every instalment in the Bernie Gunther series has been a real ‘cancel everything, I have a book to read’ occasion.
To be honest, I don’t consciously analyse the plot or characters while reading — these books are pure enjoyment for me. But what makes the Bernie Gunther series so compelling?
First, there’s the historical period and context. The series starts off in 1930s Berlin (the first three books appear in a single volume, Berlin Noir). Nazism is on the rise. Gunther, a social democrat who never joins the Nazi Party, struggles to hold on to his job in a police force, a city and a country that has taken leave of its senses. Despite his outspoken contempt of what’s happening around him and many of the people involved, he still finds himself working for senior Nazis like Heydrich, and hates himself for doing so. We accompany Gunther through the war years, through the 1940s and into the 1950s. The plots are complex, evocative and meticulously researched. Occasionally an episode of Gunther’s story overlaps with events in another thriller series I love, the German-language Gereon Rath novels by Volker Kutscher, also set in 1930s Berlin. As both series take place in the context of real, historical events and people, we often encounter the same characters (particularly in the Berlin police) in Gunther’s and Rath’s respective stories. I’ve learned a lot from both of them.
Gunther is a misfit, out of step with time and all life throws at him
Second, we see Gunther’s past, present and future life. The series spans three tumultuous decades of chaos, violence, horror and tragedy, also for Gunther personally, but is unusual in that it doesn’t always follow in chronological order. For me, this intensifies the feeling that Gunther is a misfit, out of step with time and all life throws at him. What’s more, with this approach Kerr not only unfolds and revisits aspects of Gunther’s life, but also ensures that ‘the present’ doesn’t contradict and undermine a future that has already been described in a previous book. I’d have loved to ask Kerr about how he maintained this incredible continuity and cohesion across thirteen books.
Nobody is perfect, least of all Gunther himself. As a Berlin police detective he’s seen it all; and having dealt with low-lifes and gangsters he’s gone on to work for powerful mass murderers. Even as he emerges from the war and tries to rebuild what’s left of his life (assuming a new identity and taking a job in a French resort hotel) his past is inescapable, always lurking round the corner, ready to catch up with him. With his life in ruins and with nowhere to really call home, he’s lost whatever faith he had in everyone and everything and does whatever it takes to survive with little, if any, compunction. But although damaged and cynical, he’s also strangely endearing. And how easy it is to judge him with the benefit of hindsight and distance.
Finally, we read Gunther’s story in his own words. There’s something uniquely engaging about storytelling in the first person. We experience events, people and places together with Gunther. We stumble along with him, trying to make sense of it all, without the benefit of another character’s insight. And we are allowed to witness his thoughts. Inside Gunther’s head is a pretty screwed up, battered place. So the narrative often bristles with dark humour, sarcasm and flight-or-fight fast thinking; other times it’s heavy with his cynicism, his self-loathing and, increasingly, his crushing weariness.
The thirteenth book, Greeks Bearing Gifts, was released at the beginning of the month. This last chapter is also our farewell. It’s time to leave Bernie Gunther in peace.
image credit: LV11 @ pixabay