Tuesday, August 17, 2010

(No.108) Adolph Hitler's third nipple

Along with the American novelist Alan Furst the Scottish writer Philip Kerr is a favourite of mine -- and for similar reasons. He has brought life in pre-war Nazi Germany and in post-war occupied Germany alive using as his first person narrator a Berlin detective working for the Kriminpolizei (Kripo) named Bernie Gunther who, refusing to become part of the 1933 National Socialist takeover of the country including the police, soon left the Kripo and became a private detective and for a time a hotel detective at Berlin's upscale Adlon Hotel.

Kerr, who has also written a number of fine 'standalone' novels, began the Bernie Gunther series with three novels published in short order: March Violets (1989) the title comes from the deprecating name commonly given in Germany to those 'late comers' who didn't join the National Socialist Party until after Hitler had assumed dictatorial powers on March 23, 1933; The Pale Criminal (1990) and A German Requiem (1991) set mainly in occupied 1947 Vienna, the first two novels having been set in Berlin. This trilogy was subsequently republished in one volume in 1993 under the title Berlin Noir. The volume is still widely available in softcover.

The Bernie Gunther novels have been called by some reviewers "suspense thrillers" and "murder/political mysteries" by others. They have been likened with good reason to the novels of Alan Furst but with a continuing central character (see my column devoted to Alan Furst's novels "Spies,masks & coffins" on RickardsRead.com (No.103); this column was published on Aug. 16 as a review article in two daily newspapers: the Waterloo Region Record and the Guelph Mercury).

Another comparison which occurred to me when first reading Berlin Noir was with a lead character in the Robert Harris 1992 bestseller Fatherland, an interesting novel based on an unusual premise: it is set in the 1964 Berlin of a victorious Nazi Germany whose lead character Xavier March is, like Gunther, a detective in the Kripo.

Kerr's novels with Bernie Gunther, no anti-Semite, as the lead character depict in appropriately dark and ominous tones what everyday life became after 1933 for Germans and -- most darkly -- for Jews in Germany. Indeed the steadily more inhumane treatment of Jews in post-1933, pre-war Germany is one of the key plot lines in the first two novels of the Berlin Noir trilogy.

In 1936 Gunther was sent to Dachau Concentration Camp by the SS. As he observed in March Violets "Dachau was the model for all later camps; there was even a special school there to train SS men to be more brutal." The portrait Kerr paints of Dachau, speaking through Gunther (who managed to extricate himself -- barely), is stark indeed.

Gunther was assigned to an "Aryan hut"; these housed 150 men while the Jews were assigned huts which "contained three times that number. It was true what they said: there's always somebody else who is worse off than you. That is unless you were unfortunate enough to be Jewish. ... in all respects Jews were the worst off. ... I met a convict who was a Jew. He was also a homosexual. And if that weren't enough he was also a communist. That made three triangles. His luck hadn't so much run out as jumped on a fucking motorcycle."

For many readers I suspect that this trilogy is likely to do more to bring alive pre-war Nazi Germany than would picking up most histories of the post-Weimar Republic period. The focus is not all that common in recent English language fiction although several writers have taken it on, like David Downing in his fine Zoo Station [2007].

Philip Kerr's lead character before and after the war (and especially during it, on the eastern front) is far from heroic or even all that sympathetic. This harder edge is softened a bit in the latter three novels in the Gunther series; the first of this trio did not appear for more than a decade after the first three.

The plots of these latter three novels occur chronologically -- in part -- but follow Gunther in different periods within the same volume: The One From The Other in 1937 Palestine and 1949 Munich; A Quiet Flame in Berlin 1932 and Buenos Aires 1950; and the latest novel If The Dead Rise Not finds Gunther in 1934 Berlin and pre-revolution Cuba in 1954.

Bernie Gunther is a hard and perforce a cynical man. Near the beginning of The Pale Criminal he must meet someone at night at the ruins of Germany's parliament building, the Reichstag. As he approaches he observes that the Nazi-organized 1933 Reichstag fire had been "the clearest piece of pyromancy that Germany could have been given as to what Adolf Hitler and his third nipple had in store for us."

Bernie Gunther drinks, smokes and womanizes to excess but above all he is a survivor. Kerr's creation is a fascinating character.

The next in the Gunther series, Field Grey, is due for publication by Quercus in the UK later this year with publication in Canada likely to follow early next year. The novel's title suggests that it may address a particularly dark period in Gunther's life: the war on the Russian front during part of which he was forced into serving in the SS. In the previous novels of the series there have been only relatively brief references to that period of his life including his capture by the Soviets near the end of the war and his escape from internment after a year.

I recommend without reservation the Gunther novels and especially the Berlin Noir trilogy. They are enjoyable and often rewarding reading. I suggest that readers new to this series pick them up in the order in which they were published because, although time periods are often mixed in the same volume, the reader will benefit from having the background provided by the preceding novel(s).


The Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr:

(the trilogy) Berlin Noir, Penguin, 1993

The One From The Other, Penguin, 2006

A Quiet Flame, Putnam, 2008

If The Dead Rise Not, Putnam, 2010


Alastair Rickard


email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca