Berlin Noir, by Philip Kerr

I said a while back that Andrew Klavan had brought the hard-boiled detective novel to a new level in his Bishop/Weiss trilogy, by turning the mystery story into an epic of redemption (or words to that effect).

I have similar praise for Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther mysteries. But Kerr transposes the melody to a minor key. His sad, gritty stories achieve the level of cosmic tragedy.

As you may remember from my review of A Quiet Flame, Bernie Gunther is a private investigator (who could have been separated at birth from Philip Marlowe) in Berlin during the 1930s. He constantly attempts to do the same sort of things Marlowe does, but history keeps interfering. Berlin Noir is a one-volume compilation of the first three stories about him.

Bernie is introduced in March Violets. We meet him in 1936, the year of Hitler’s Olympics, as a busy detective with a one-man agency, making a decent living for himself. He used to be a policeman, but the politicization of the force drove him out. In this adventure, he is hired by an anti-Nazi industrialist to investigate the robbery and murder of his daughter and her husband. In the course of the investigation, he hires a new secretary and falls in love with her, with sad results.

In The Pale Criminal, he has entered into an uncomfortable partnership with a former police colleague. He is persuaded to accept a “temporary” assignment with the force again, in order to try to find and stop a serial murderer who is killing young girls.

In A German Requiem, we jump forward to 1947. The war is over. Berlin lies in ruins, and is starving. Bernie was forced to stay with the police after his last adventure, and got enrolled perforce in the SS. Shipped to the eastern front, he volunteered for a combat commission rather than do the things SS officers were expected to do. After being captured by the Russians he wasted in one of their P.O.W. camps before escaping and making his way home. He is a detective again, although he generally gets paid in barter goods. In this book he gets hired to travel to Vienna (where conditions are much better) to try to help an old SS comrade who has been accused of killing an American officer. He doesn’t much like his client, but tends to believe that he didn’t commit this particular crime. In any case, he needs the money. By now he has gotten married, though the marriage is not a good one. (There are numerous hat-tips to The Third Man in this book, and Bernie even sees one scene from the Welles film being shot.)

The “payoff” in each book is the ironic discovery of the truth, balanced by the reality that the truth doesn’t matter much in Germany just now. Like Sisyphus in a fedora, Bernie learns again and again that the little good he can do is swallowed up in an ocean of wrong. What use saving one life, when millions are about to be lost? What use getting justice for a Jew, when the Holocaust waits around the corner? What use serving the law, when the law serves Hitler?

And yet Bernie perseveres, because this is his purpose and fate as a man.

Balanced on the outside of the tram car back to town, I kept my mind off my precarious position by constructing a number of elegant titles for my rather vulgar profession: Practitioner of Solitary Masculine Lifestyle; Non-metaphysical Inquiry Agent; Interrogative Solicitor for the Displaced and the Misplaced; Bespoke Grail-Finder; Seeker after Truth. I liked the last one best of all. (From A German Requiem)

Bernie makes a few references to religion. I thought I’d caught the author in an inconsistency when the detective declared himself a Lutheran in the first book, then suddenly called himself a Catholic in the third. But this was explained. Bernie felt the need of spiritual consolation in the Russian prison camp and, since a Catholic priest was the only kind available, went to him. Thus he considers himself a Catholic now.

Cautions are in order for sex and violence. In the grand tradition of the hard-boiled detective, Bernie has at least one sexual encounter in each book, and they get relatively explicit. In only one of these encounters is Bernie actually married to the woman, and in that case they’re both cheating on each other anyway.

But overall these are sad, sensitive, heartbreaking books—hard-boiled at its very best. Bernie is no saint, but he deserves a better fate than he’s gotten. Who among us would have done better in his place?

And then, a few days before I was discharged, it came to me in a sickening realization. Because I was German these Americans were actually chilled by me. It was as if, when they looked at me, they ran a newsreel film of Belsen and Buchenwald inside their heads. And what was in their eyes was a question: how could you have allowed it to happen? How could you let that sort of thing go on? (From A German Requiem)

Highly recommended.

2 thoughts on “Berlin Noir, by Philip Kerr”

  1. Maybe that explains my trouble with the Weiss/Bishop series. A novel should primarily be a detective novel or a novel of redemption, and if both one must be subordinated to, and arise naturally from, the other. With the Weiss/Bishop novels I never got that sense. Also the narrator grows but given the retrospective position from which he’s writing, he shouldn’t. The growth should all be retrospective, but it isn’t. You really feel like something has happened to the supposed narrator not between the time of the events of the books but between the time of the writing of the books, which is something of a false note.

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