“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.”
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.
Hitler 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.
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
I 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
Just 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 Darkness, Detective 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.