Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Berlin Noir: The Bernie Gunther Novels

By Phillip Kerr
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2004-2019
Mike Hanlon, Reviewer

Alexanderplatz, Berlin, in the 1930s

If you like your private eyes smart, tough talking, witty, and supremely cynical, Bernie Gunther is the man for you. If you like reading historical fiction-mystery fusion novels, then you'll be right at home with the late Phillip Kerr's 14 Bernie Gunther novels. If you like your protagonist to be a World War One veteran, who has seen it all, met everyone, chased every skirt, been as wicked as he's been honorable, but finds the Great War and its aftermath still haunts his every step, you've found your man in Bernie. I discovered the Berlin sleuth about  a decade ago and I've read all his cases, just completing his last,  #14, last month.

In the early part of the series when we meet him, Bernie's been a homicide detective in the Kripo (Kriminalpolizei—Berlin's criminal police) at the Alexanderplatz for 11 years. The Nazis, however, don't like his politics when they come into power in '33, and Bernie's soon out the door. Naturally, he quickly  finds work on the private side of law enforcement. It turns out, unluckily for him, that Himmler and Goering soon need his well-known skills and drag him into their web of conspiracies. Thus is launched a career that sees Bernie (as the novels roll along) dragged into the S.S. by uber-manipulative Reinhard Heydrich, assigned to investigate war crimes like the Katyn Forest massacre, captured and imprisoned by the Red Army, fleeing to South America as a suspected war criminal, gaining the Perons and, later, Batista as clients, and eventually returning incognito as a hotel manager to the French Riviera in the 1950s where East German intelligence spots him and applies new pressure. Incidentally, unlike the great Maisie Dobbs, few of Bernie's cases are directly linked to World War One. It's memories are always present for him, however, in all the novels.

If I've whetted your interest—to start—I recommend reading the first three Bernie Gunther mysteries, collectively known as the Berlin Noir series (available in one volume). These pick up his career in the 1930s, but, like the Flashman series (another personal favorite), the subsequent books are not chronologically sequenced and these leave some big gaps in his resume. Unfortunately, his creator, Philip Kerr, died last year, so we will never learn details like how Bernie escaped the clutches of U.S authorities, who were hot on his trail at one point, or where the old Kripo commissar made his last stand. Author Kerr, however, gives enough fill-in data to keep his readers from getting disoriented. 

I've left out a lot here about Bernie's 14 volumes of adventures, but in any case, I think you will find all of Bernie's adventures historically informative, exciting, and highly entertaining.

Mike Hanlon

1 comment:

  1. I've viewed the "Berlin Babylon" series on Netflix, finding them quite good, notwithstanding movie makers'penchant for taking dramatic license. I tend to think these Bernie Gunther stories will likewise be pretty good. How's the translation...capturing the German idiom to English with some poetry?