“Metropolis,” written by Philip Kerr under the eye — or perhaps into the teeth — of his own mortality, is the 14th and final story about Bernie Gunther, Kerr’s conflicted investigator in pre-World War II Berlin. It’s also the start of Bernie’s personal chronology, taking us back to 1928 and his first case as a homicide cop: a string of murders committed by a killer nicknamed “Winnetou.” It was a smart decision by Kerr to create a timeless moment: Here’s Gunther, a war veteran with the scars on his soul to show for it, moving from the vice squad to the real action and immediately catching a role in the biggest case of the day alongside Ernst Gennat, Berlin’s historical top detective. In other words, the book is in the bull’s eye of classic crime.
Kerr, who died in March of 2018, was a scholar as well as a storyteller, and “Metropolis” rewards a little investigation on the reader’s part. The title nod to Fritz Lang’s 1927 film sets the thematic tone: a city starkly divided between prosperous daylight and impoverished shadow, beset by modernity yet shortly to be plunged into violence by the echoes of the past — but it’s “M,” Lang’s magnum opus made in 1931, that frames the narrative. Gennat was purported to be the inspiration for M’s Karl Lohmann, and Kerr smoothly inserts Gunther into the society of screenwriter Thea von Harbou to suggest that he’s telling the story behind the film. Everywhere you turn, you find history winking at you from the page.
That’s a staple of the series, and from his debut outing in “March Violets,” Gunther has been one of crime’s favorite protagonists, but he’s not an easy hero to live with, nor even a comfortable antihero. The mood is obviously Chandlerish, with Berlin taking the place of Los Angeles, but while Philip Marlowe moved through a streetlight-and-tobacco haze of money, violence and gunmetal glamour, Gunther’s usual backdrop is the apparatus of the 20th century’s most notorious horror, and his acquaintance with it is intimate. He works on more than one occasion directly for the appalling Rein hard Heydrich, a chief architect of the Holocaust.
Where a posture of indifference is forced upon Marlowe by the absence of a heart to his darkness, Gunther peers through a doorway directly into his, and if he merits the title “good cop” because he tries to bring in the right appalling villain by something approaching proper investigation, he never commits to fighting the Nazi regime, and, however grudgingly, accepts its mantle as a usable tool. His interior monologue protests, but still there’s a bleak flavor of collaboration in his choices. Here the aptness of Kerr’s direction in this final book begins to shine: “Metropolis” belongs not to Hitler’s rule, but to the Weimar Republic.
Weimar is an undiscovered country for most of us. We hear about it mostly as a waiting room for the Third Reich, but one realizes, reading “Metropolis,” that it was a distinct and in some ways achingly familiar democratic moment, swallowed by the demons of the same end-of-empire European politics that led to its creation. Berlin under the Republic is Gunther’s natural environment: seedy and sexy, brutal and cosmopolitan and out of step with the rising fascism of the rest of the country; it fits him like the shoulders of a well-worn raincoat. All his noir postures make perfect sense here — and, consciously or not, Kerr plays them smoother and looser. In “March Violets,” everyone reads detective novels; in “Metropolis” they’re all talking about westerns, even as they inhabit a gangster-industrial twilight.
This makes the story easier to slip into, the character superficially less troubling (if hardly enlightened), but at the same time it sets us up for — and invites us to look back on — the rest of Gunther’s life. Weimar will not recover, nor will Bernie. In 2019, we inhabit a world with far too much in common with this one, and if ours should follow a similar track, we, like him, must do better than nod through it. If crime fiction has a moral point, this must be it: to illuminate the boundary line. If we judge the older Gunther to be on the wrong side of that line, we must accept the warning implicit in enjoying the company of the younger man, and make sure we don’t repeat his mistakes.
First and last, though, this is a detective story, a hard-boiled murder mystery, and it delivers in high style. (You can read “Metropolis” before the other books, so long as you also read it after them.) There are traces, perhaps, of the urgent, devil-driven pace of its creation: Does Gunther’s drinking problem come and go a little abruptly? Or is it just that he, like Sherlock Holmes, abuses intoxicants when forced to idleness?
But that’s small potatoes. “Metropolis” is a consummately told tale with lashings of vice and horror that works either as a gripping stand-alone in the Chandler mode or as the keystone of a 14-book arch with a deeper, more troubling flavor, and it’s a perfect goodbye — and first hello — to its hero. In “Metropolis,” Bernie Gunther has, at last, come home.
Nick Harkaway is author of the novels “The Gone-Away World,” “Angelmaker,” “Tigerman” and “Gnomon.”
By Philip Kerr
Marian Wood/Putnam. 368 pp. $28