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Bernie Gunther

METROPOLIS . . . Between the covers

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Metro1012First up, Metropolis is a bloody good detective story. Philip Kerr gives us a credible copper, he lets us see the same clues and evidence that the central character sees and, like all the best writers do, he throws a few false trails in our path and encourages us to follow them. We are in Berlin in the late 1920s. A decade after the German army was defeated on the battlefield and its political leaders presided over a disintegrating home front, some things are beginning to return to normal. Yes, there are crippled ex-soldiers on the streets selling bootlaces and matches, and there are clubs in the city where the determined thrill-seeker can indulge every sexual vice known to man – and a few practices that surely have their origin in hell. The bars, restaurants and cafes of Berlin are buzzing with talk of a new political party, but this is Berlin, and Berliners are much too sophisticated and cynical to do anything other than mock the ridiculous rhetoric coming from the National Socialists. Besides, most of them are Bavarians and since when did a Bavarian have either wit, word or worth?

The copper is, of course, Bernie Gunther. Enthusiasts have followed his career from its infancy in the Berlin kripo of the Weimar Republic, through the dark days of World War II (accompanied by such luminaries as Reinhard Heydrich and Joseph Goebbels.) We have held our breath in the 1950s as Gunther tries to elude hunters who, mistakenly, have his name on a list of Nazi war criminals. We have been in the same rooms as Eva Peron and William Somerset-Maugham. Our man has led us a merry dance through mainland Europe, Cuba and Argentina but, sadly:

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

Metro2013Metropolis sees Gunther in pursuit of a Berlin Jack The Ripper who is certainly “down on whores.” Four prostitutes are killed and scalped, but when the fifth girl to die is the daughter of a well-connected city mobster, her death is a game-changer, and Gunther suddenly has a whole new world of information and inside knowledge at his fingertips. He is drawn into another series of killings, this time the shooting of disabled war veterans. Are the two sets of murders connected? When the police receive gloating letters, apparently from the perpetrator, does it mean that someone from the emergent extreme right wing of politics is, as they might put it, “cleaning up the streets”?

As ever in the Gunther novels, we meet real people from the period, exquisitely researched and re-imaged by the author. As well as the actual senior police officers of the Berlin Kriminalpolizei, Kerr introduces us to the artists Otto Dix and George Grosz. Gunther rubs shoulders with theatre folk too, but he is no fan of the singing of Lotte Lenya:

“..the mezzo-soprano could hold a note no better than I could hang on to a hot poker. She was plain, too – I caught sight of her onstage as I made my way up to one of the dressing rooms – one of those thin, pale-faced, red-haired Berlin girls who remind me of a safety match.”

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On the bright side, Gunther’s trip to The Neues Theater (above) is not entirely wasted, as he meets Brigitte Mölbling. He sees:

“..an Amazonian blonde whose perfectly proportioned windswept head lookd like the mascot on the hood of a fast car; she had a cool smile, a strong nose, and eye-brows that were so perectly drawn they might have been put here by Raphael or Titian.”

PKMölbling helps Gunther disguise himself as one of the disabled ex-soldiers, as he reluctantly accepts the role in order to attract the killer who, in his letters to the cops, signs himself Dr. Gnadenschuss. Gunther’s trap eventually draws forth the predator, but not in the way either he or his bosses might have anticipated.

Philip Kerr died on 23rd March 2018 and Metropolis is his final work. Of all the many portraits of Bernie Gunther, which one does he leave us with? Our man is young. He is handsome. His four years in the trenches were brutal, but he survived and he is resilient. The cynicism? If new-born babies feel anything other than hungry or full, cold or warm, wet or dry, then perhaps the infant Bernhard ruefully first opened his blue eyes and gazed on a world which he already knew was full of imperfections and disappointment. But let Bernie have the final word. The entrancing Brigitte ends their relationship, unable to become close to a man who has seen – and will continue to see – so much horror and blood:

“I burned her letter. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t had one before, and I suppose that before my time is up, I’ll have others. Never forget, always replace. That’s the first rule of human relationships. Moving on: this is the important part.”

Metropolis is published by Quercus, and is out on 4th April.

Click the link for more opinion and information about the Bernie Gunther series.

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GREEKS BEARING GIFTS . . . Between the covers

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philip-kerr“One of the greatest anti-heroes ever written,” says Lee Child of Bernie Gunther, the world weary, wise-cracking former German cop, and sometime acquaintance of such diverse historical characters as Reinhard Heydrich, Joseph Goebbels, Eva Peron and William Somerset Maugham. I was several chapters into this, the latest episode in Gunther’s career, when I heard the dreadful news of the death of his creator, Philip Kerr (left) at the age of 62. “No age at all,” as the saying goes.

We rejoin our man in 1957, where he is eking out a living in the economic miracle that is Konrad Adenauer’s West Germany. The prosperity and new international respectability created in a country that just ten years earlier lay devastated by war, has largely passed Gunther by. Under an assumed name, he is working as a mortuary attendant in a Munich hospital. It is not his ideal job, but as he says:

“So, until I could find myself something better, I was stuck with it and my customers were stuck with me. I certainly didn’t hear any of them complaining about my bedside manner.”

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After being blackmailed into taking part in a financial scam involving local politicians, Gunther manges to come out of the affair smelling, if not of roses, like something fairly neutral, like amaryllis. He is rewarded with a new job – that of an insurance adjuster, investigating fraudulent claims and saving his employers precious deutschmarks. Gunther reflects, with typical hard nosed perception, about the state of modern West Germany, with the Third Reich having done one of the most spectacular disappearing acts in history.

” Germany would try its best to be nice to everyone and, in the interests of making money, everyone else would try their best to forget what Germany had done during the war. Bureaucracy and trade were to be my country’s new method of conquering Europe, and lawyers and civil servants were to be its foot soldiers.

adenauerHitler could certainly have taken a lesson from the Old Man (Adenauer, left) It was not the men with guns who were going to rule the world but businessmen …. with their slide rules and actuarial tables, and thick books of obscure new laws in three different languages.”

Gunther is sent to Greece to investigate the sinking of boat used by a German maker of underwater films, but soon he finds the owner shot dead through both eyes, and a trail of deception and murder that links the sunken boat to the shameful treatment of Thessaloniki’s thousands of Jews during the war. They were deceived, robbed, brutalised – and finally shipped off to the death camps – by men who seem to be still alive and well in Athens.

As Isaac Watts wrote so memorably, “Time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away..” and Gunther, while not dead yet, is not the man he was. He suffers a minor heart attack while chasing one of his suspects, but his remedy is not one that would appeal to modern cardiologists.

“But straightway I knew what needed to be done: I lurched into the café, ordered a large brandy, and lit a cigarette but not before snapping the filter off the filter to smoke it plain and get my breath. The old remedies are usually best. Throughout both wars it was a strong cigarette and a tot of something warm that kept the nerves in check, especially when the shells were falling around you like rocks at Muslim stoning. Once the nerves were sorted, the bullets wouldn’t touch you; and if they did, you hardly cared.”

Part of the delightfully complex plot involves the intervention of the Israeli secret service, the fearsome Mossad. The woman who is heading up their Athens operation is witheringly sarcastic when Gunther claims that, albeit under trying circumstances, he had kept a relatively clean conscience during the 1930s and 1940s.

” I’ve heard of the unicorn, the griffin, the great auk, the tart with a heart, and little green men from outer space. I’ve even heard of the good German, but I never thought to see one myself. You never voted for the Nazis, and you never liked Hitler. I suppose there was even a Jew you helped to survive the war. You hid him in your lavatory for a couple of days. And of course some of your best friends were Jews. It amazes me how many of us died.”

This is a magnificent book. Gunther’s cynicism, his basic decency, and his ability to keep the candle flame of his conscience flickering in the dark while still keeping his head attached to his body, are described by an author at the very peak of his powers. Philip Kerr may have passed from the sight of men, but Bernie Gunther is immortal.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Three keepers!

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MOST BOOK REVIEWERS do not have the space to keep all the books they read and review. I’m no exception, despite living in a five bedroom property bought to house a missus and four sons. The four sons have now grown up and gone, but Mrs P is, happily, still in residence. Friends, giveaways and charity shops are the usual beneficiaries of the unwanted books, but there are some writers whose novels I will only be parted from after a brutal battle where I have, like John Cleese’s Black Knight, been dismembered. These books are usually dotted about throughout the year, and some only exist as a digital file on my Kindle, but to get three ‘keepers’ in one delivery is something special. Two of these writers could be called Elder Statesmen of the crime fiction world, but the third has established himself, in my eyes at least, after just one superb novel.

THE SMILING MAN by JOSEPH KNOX

KnoxI met Joseph Knox (left) at a publisher’s showcase event in London, where he presented his debut novel, Sirens. I was hooked after hearing him read the opening paragraphs, and my initial impression was confirmed when I read the novel, featuring a conflicted young Manchester police officer, Aidan Waits. Knox talked about his work and influences in this interview, but now Aidan Waits makes a very welcome return. Once again, the city of Manchester looms as a malign and dystopian presence in The Smiling Man. In the crumbling and echoing emptiness of a former hotel, Waits finds a corpse whose killers have been so determined to render him anonymous that his teeth and fingertips have been replaced. In death, his face has assumed the rictus of a fatal smile. You can find out if – and how –  Waits solves this crime on 8th March. The Smiling Man is published by Doubleday.

GREEKS BEARING GIFTS by PHILIP KERR

Philip KerrJust as George MacDonald Fraser had his magnificent bounder Harry Flashman working his way through all the major political and military events of the the second half of the 19th century, so Philip Kerr (right) has positioned his wearily honest – but cynical –  German cop Bernie Gunther in the 20th. We know Gunther fought in The Great War, but his service there is only, thus far, alluded to. We have seen him interact with most of the significant players in the decades spanning the rise of the Nazis through to their defeat and escape into post-war boltholes such as Argentina and Cuba. In the 13th book of this brilliant series, Gunther, joints creaking with advancing old age, is now working for an insurance company who want him to investigate a possible scam involving a sunken ship. His work takes him to Athens, where he discovers an unpleasantly familiar link to evil deeds committed under the baleful gaze of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen. Some of Bernie Gunther’s earlier exploits are covered here, while you can get hold of his latest case on 3rd April, courtesy of Quercus.

THE GREAT DARKNESS by JIM KELLY

Crime fiction readers are addicted to character series, and who can blame writers for feeding the fire. It is a matter of record that some very successful novelists have come to hate their creations, and have killed them off and started anew. Not all are successful – witness a certain Edinburgh physician – but Jim Kelly (below) has done the deed once, and now he is brave enough to do it again. His Peter Shaw books have matched his Philip Dryden novels for ingenuity, sense of place and history, and beautiful writing, but now he begins a third series, stepping back in time to the early days of World War Two. He has kept faith with his East Anglian setting, but we have moved sixteen miles down the road from Dryden’s cathedral city of Ely, to Cambridge where, in The Great DarknessDetective Inspector Eden Brooke, struggling with the titular ban on night-time lights, discovers a gruesome killing o the banks of the gently flowing River Cam. The Great Darkness is published by Allison & Busby, and is out on 15th February. You can read more about Jim Kelly and his books here.

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THE GREAT WAR and CRIME FICTION … An introduction

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“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

Reflective essays on Fully Booked don’t usually begin with a quotation from the nearest thing to a monster that the 20th Century produced, but in the case of Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, we make an exception. I suppose that when someone is the runner-up to Mao Zedong in the mass-murderer hit parade, you might hope that your words outlive your mortal life.

With Stalin’s cynical but perceptive maxim in mind, it would be excusable if a few criminal murders here or there were to be largely ignored in the maelstrom of shot and shell which was The Great War, but both in real life and in the minds of crime fiction writers, a death is a death, particularly if it occurs for reasons other than the victim being too near to the detonation of a minenwerfer or a Stokes Mortar round.

It could be said that novels set in the various theatres of WWII resonate with greater intensity to readers since 1945. In more recent times, and with pure crime fiction in mind, we have the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr, the masterly Fred Troy novels by John Lawton, and the hugely underrated John Madden books by Rennie Airth. Further back, further afield, and further from the crime genre we should not forget the contribution made by American writers such as Norman Mailer, Herman Wouk, James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller.

 

Literary

In a purely literary sense, the standout novels which have the The Great War as their backbone have to include Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong and a novel which, in my view, trumps them all – Covenant With Death, by John Harris. Harris also wrote one of the iconic novels of WWII, which was a huge success both as a book and a film – The Sea Shall Not Have Them. None of these books could in any way be called a crime novel, and so they must stay outside of our collection.

DonkeysWhat needs to be held up like a bright lantern in our search for good WWI crime fiction, is the fact that those six years are like no other in British history. They have produced a mythology which is unique in modern memory, and with it a collection of tropes, images, phrases and conventions, all of which find their way into the consciousness of writers and readers. Military historians tell only part of the story: the Alan Clark theory of The Donkeys and the anti-war polemic of the the 1960s and 70s has one version of events; more recent accounts of the war by revisionist historians such as John Terrain and Gary Sheffield tell another tale altogether. In considering books and writers for this feature I have used two criteria. Firstly, there must be crime involved that is distinct from the licensed slaughter of wartime and, secondly, the events of the war must cast their shadows over the narrative either in a contemporary sense or in the form of a social or political legacy.

PART ONE of

TGWACH feature

will be published on
FRIDAY 4th NOVEMBER 2016

WW2 Historical Crime Fiction – (5) A Man Without Breath

katynPhilip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels bestride the 20th century, from the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany to the post war period when many countries still sheltered mysterious German gentlemen whose collective past has been, of necessity, reinvented. Gunther is a smart talking, smart thinking policeman who has kept his sanity intact – but his conscience rather less so – by dealing with such elemental forces as Reinhardt Heydrich, Joseph Goebbels, Juan and Evita Peron, and Adolf Eichmann.

amwbreathA Man Without Breath (2013) sees Gunther is working for an organisation whose very existence may seem improbable, given the historical context, but Die Wehrmacht Untersuchungsstelle (Wehrmacht Bureau of War Crimes) was set up in 1939 and continued its work until 1945. In 1943, on a mission from the Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, Gunther is sent to Smolensk and entrusted with proving that the thousands of corpses lying frozen beneath the trees of the nearby Katyn Forest are those of Polish army officers and intellectuals murdered by the Russian NKVD, and not those of Jews murdered by the SS.

The action is set against a resurgent Red Army slowly grinding its way west, and a small but growing body of opinion among the more aristocratic members of joseph-goebbels-speaf9d239the German military that Hitler is a dangerous upstart who has already damaged the country beyond repair, and must be stopped. Adrift on a sea of violent corruption, Gunther constantly plays the role of the decent man, but in the end, he follows one theology, and one theology only. If he wakes up the next day with his head firmly attached to his shoulders, and has feeling in his extremities, then he has done the right thing. His conscience has not died, but it is far from well; it competes a whole chorale of competing voices in his head, each wishing to be heard. As he is left helpless by the world of spin and disinformation orchestrated by Dr Goebbels, (right) he must resort to his basic copper’s instincts to protect himself and uncover the truth.

The Katyn Forest murders are a matter of historical record, but it is only in relatively recent times that Russia has officially admitted responsibility for the massacres. As recently as 6 December 2010, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev expressed commitment to uncovering the whole truth about the massacre, stating “Russia has recently taken a number of unprecedented steps towards clearing up the legacy of the past. We will continue in this direction”.

History tells us that the dead of Katyn included an admiral, two generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 85 privates, 3,420 non-commissioned officers, and seven chaplains, 200 pilots, government representatives and royalty (a prince and 43 officials), and civilians (three landowners, 131 refugees, 20 university professors, 300 physicians, several hundred lawyers, engineers, and teachers, and more than 100 writers and journalists.

We know the terrible details but Gunther only has his suspicions. Kerr weaves a brilliant tale where Gunther’s arrival at the truth has the ironic consequence of removing culpability for the deaths from one group of brutal criminals and bestowing it upon another. Those of us who are old enough to remember the post-war years, if only as children, will be familiar with the feeling that the Russians were bastards every bit as awful as their Nazi opponents, but at least they were our bastards – at least until they reached Berlin.

A Man Without Breath is available in all formats.

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