Philip Kerr: Creator of Bernie Gunther
Very sad news this weekend, with the announcement of the death of Philip Kerr on Friday 23rd Mach 2018. Starting from a career in advertising, Philip Kerr will be long remembered for his wonderful series of books featuring Bernie Gunther, a hard-bitten, essentially moral, German policeman; Gunther is not without his own weaknesses and demons, but when faced with moral choices, always seems to make the right choice, all-be-it often with a very hard edge.
The twelve book series started in 1989 with "March Violets", which is written in a very punchy, hard-boiled style, owing much to Hammett and Chandler, but set in a Germany of 1936, where the Nazi regime is consolidating its power and preparing for war. Bernie investigates the murders of family members of a rich German mandarin of industry, and leads us through the dark and dangerous world of pre-war Berlin, ending up in the Dachau concentration camp.
The next two books, "The Pale Criminal", published in 1990, and "A German Requiem", 1991, continue in a similar vein and style, with stories set in Berlin in 1938 and Vienna in 1947 respectively. These first three novellas were re-published together by Penguin in 1993 under the title "Berlin Noir".
The fourth book in the series, "The One from the Other", did not appear until 2006. It is set in Munich in 1949, and is set in the world of post war former Nazis and all the recriminations found in a defeated nation. Gunther is now a private detective looking for a former Nazi war criminal on behalf of his wife. 15 years on, Kerr's style has become more mature and he has found his own authentic voice, not having to rely on the hard-boiled tricks of the first three stories.
The remaining eight books, which appeared between 2008 , "A Quiet Flame", and 2017 "Prussian Blue" explore Gunther's career between 1934 and 1956, with several involving a flash-back flash-forward structure, which is managed very smoothly, are all written in the mature late style and are an absolute joy to read.
I have read all of the Bernie Gunther books twice, both in the order in which they were published, and in the chronological order, which runs from book 6 "If the Dead Rise Not", set in 1934 to book 11, "The Other Side of Silence", which is set in 1956. My enjoyment was not dependent on the order of reading, but I do suggest that the first three early titles should perhaps be read first, as the stylistic change may jar somewhat.
The only bright news about Bernie Gunther is there is one final book, "Greeks Bearing Gifts" which is due out on April 3rd 2018. I have already ordered my copy and will read it with a mixture of pleasure and sadness.
Vale Philip Kerr. You will be sorely missed.