An Intriguing Return To 'Berlin Noir'
Monday, September 11, 2006
THE ONE FROM THE OTHER
By Philip Kerr
Marian Wood/Putnam. 372 pp. $26.95
In 1989, at the age of 33, the Scottish-born English writer Philip Kerr published his first novel, "March Violets," which introduced Bernie Gunther, a detective in Berlin as the Nazis came to power. It was followed by a second Gunther novel, "The Pale Criminal," in 1990, and a third, "A German Requiem," the next year. The three novels, relating Gunther's battle for survival before, during and after World War II, won international acclaim and became known as the "Berlin Noir" trilogy. Now, after 15 years during which he wrote other novels on other subjects, Kerr brings back Bernie Gunther in another grim, gripping report on the evil that men do.
Several elements account for the excellence of the Gunther books. First, Kerr is a fine novelist; in terms of narrative, dialogue, plot, pace and characterizations, he's in a league with John le Carré and Alan Furst. Moreover, he has done prodigious research into an era that ended well before he was born. The political, historical, military and cultural details on every page feel absolutely authentic. If you want a sense of what Nazi Germany was like, day to day, not many novels equal these. Finally, Kerr was truly inspired to place a detective-turned-private eye at work in Nazi Germany. Private eyes investigate crimes, and where in human history can we find more cosmic crimes than those of the Hitler era? The question was whether Kerr would be equal to the challenge he set for himself. He has been.
To offset the darkness of his story, Kerr made Gunther a wisecracking PI in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. In his new "The One From the Other," he pays homage to both Americans. Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon" begins with Spade receiving a visit from a gorgeous, duplicitous woman who proves not to be who or what she says she is. In Kerr's novel, in 1949, Gunther receives a visit from an equally striking woman who claims to be seeking proof of the death of her husband, a Nazi war criminal, but she, too, is not who or what she claims.
Kerr's homage to Chandler lies mainly in his use of the over-the-top phrases that Chandler loved: "Watching her eat a sandwich was like watching a hyena devour a leg of pork." "Menus the size of kitchen doors." "A fist the size of a small Alp." "A voice that creaked like the door on a Transylvanian castle." And, my favorite, "I felt as lonely as a fish in a toilet bowl." I think Kerr uses too many of these -- I think Chandler used too many -- but they do provide an occasional smile amid a story filled with flashbacks to military atrocities, mass graves, widespread rape and fatal medical experiments on women and children.
Gunther's search for the war criminal leads him to a Catholic priest who provides new identities, passports and passage to Argentina for ex-Nazis trying to flee the Allied forces -- and the Jewish vengeance squads -- pursuing them. For his curiosity, Gunther is seized by some Nazi thugs who beat him almost to death and chop off his little finger. While in a hospital, he is befriended by a doctor who takes him to his rural home to recover. There he meets a crippled former German soldier, and in time Gunther undertakes a mission to Vienna on behalf of this new friend.
In Vienna, he is soon in deep, deep trouble. Few people in this novel are what they first seem, and Gunther finds himself the victim of an elaborate plot. The villains this time are not only Nazis but also Catholic priests and a corrupt American who is out to enrich himself and doesn't care how many innocent lives are lost. Even an unrepentant Adolf Eichmann turns up, seeking to escape to Argentina, as do other figures whose virulent anti-Semitism is shocking, even in this context. In terms of popular fiction, Kerr's Germany is as searing a portrait of hell on Earth as we are likely to see.
Bernie Gunther, wisecracking but heartbroken, not only by his wife's death at the start of the novel but also by the death of sanity, of decency, of civilization itself, makes a gritty Everyman. We learn that, as a Berlin detective who despised Hitler, he was drafted into the SS. Assigned to a death squad, which would mean killing Jews, he requested transfer to the Eastern front, where he was taken prisoner. "After my own experiences on the Russian front," he tells us, "I came to believe human beings were capable of an unlimited degree of inhumanity." Elsewhere he reflects, "If there's one thing history has taught me to believe it is that it's dangerous to believe in anything very much. Especially in Germany. The trouble with us is that we take belief much too seriously." One of the bright spots in this always readable, often troubling novel is the suggestion, near the end, that Kerr's good German will return again.