Philip Kerr’s detective hero Bernie Gunther is Sam Spade with raw herring on his breath and a smattering of German or Germanic slang (‘Kripo’ for the Criminal Police, ‘bulls’ for policemen, ‘chocoladies’ for those of dubious virtue) stirred into his tough private-eye talk. He drags on a cigarette, keeps a bottle in his desk, has a way with women but not much luck with them. Underneath his sceptical exterior he is brave, persistent and not without honour. The thing that sets him apart from Spade and Marlowe and their legion of imitators is that he is based – or has been so far – not in urban America in the Thirties and Forties, but in the Berlin of that period.
The first two novels were set in the Nazi era: March Violets (1989) in the early months of the regime, and The Pale Criminal (last year) in 1938. The plots started off with conventional private-eye cases – a missing person, for example – but as Bernie burrowed on, he found he was involved in the machinations of rival Nazi leaders and their factions. I found these books tricky going, wearing their researches too obviously. It was as if their young author – not born until 1956 – was determined to make the reader pay for every mile of Berlin pavement he’d tramped, pre-war street plan in hand. The first rule of literary research is to do it but forget it. A German Requiem jumps forward to 1947-48, to the hardship, ignominy and black-market economics of life in Germany (and Austria) before Dr Schacht wrought his miracle. It also represents an advance by Philip Kerr, if not quite such a substantial one as I’d hoped.
Bernie has had a useful war for a private investigator who will be drawn, inevitably, into de-Nazification wrangles. He joined a branch of military intelligence which put him in the SS (bad mark), applied for a transfer when his unit was ordered to carry out mass executions of Russian prisoners (good mark), and found himself posted to the war crimes bureau of the German High Command – full marks, to Kerr, for irony. He spent a couple of years in captivity after being taken prisoner on the Eastern Front, acquiring a sufficient smattering of Russian lore and language to stand him in good stead when he is propositioned by a suave young colonel on the staff of the Soviet Commandant. The Colonel wants Bernie to try and prove the innocence of a black-marketeer held for the murder of an American officer; the investigation takes him to Vienna and leads to a self-help organisation of former, much-wanted Nazis. All of which is perfectly sound, if expectable, and resourcefully peopled with actual as well as imaginary villains. Kerr is much more at home among the ruins than he was in the Reich. Where he still leaves me disappointed – surprisingly – is in the basic disciplines of his trade.
He was a well-built man, with thick dark eyebrows and a large, flourishing moustache: it looked like some rare species of marten that had escaped on to his lip from some colder, more northerly clime. Dropping over Konig’s mouth, this small sable completed a generally lugubrious expression which started with his melancholy brown eyes ...
That’s a fair example of the capsule physical description with which Kerr introduces each new character. It’s elaborately constructed to stamp itself on the reader’s vision, and is completely ignored. You form your own picture from little deeds, scraps of conversation, preconceptions. The Russian colonel comes alive when he unbuttons his flies and pisses out of his office window. Then there is the important matter of plot draughtsmanship. In the thriller spectrum Philip Kerr is operating somewhat left of centre: as his choice of a private-eye hero makes clear, he is nearer to the acrostic or detective-story end of the spectrum than he is to the relatively straightforward adventure (Ian Fleming, Geoffrey Household, Jack Higgins), in which the difficulties and dangers of the mission are more important than its secrets. He still needs to send his hero into danger, he still needs an active climax, but he has also got to disentangle the intricate plots-within-plots that he has been spinning.
Kerr is pretty good at the spinning. He leads the reader confidently into ever more convoluted mysteries, with no one turning out to be quite the player he at first seemed. It is the disentangling which lets him down. He has to fall back on that never very convincing device of the leading heavy helpfully explaining the details of the conspiracy to our captive hero, shortly before nasty things are due to be done to him. When Bernie has violently turned the tables, there are another five or six post-climactic pages devoted to the tying-up of loose ends. Which brings me to question of violence.
My instinct is that it should be severely rationed: a maximum of one killing and two bodily harms per book, averaged out over the writer’s oeuvre. Indiscriminate use blunts the effectiveness when it is really needed. It is also very difficult to do well. In his first few pages, Kerr has a decapitation of a Russian soldier which is sudden, brutal and properly shocking: this works perfectly to establish the lurid picture of Berlin, year zero plus two, which he wants to paint. It tells readers new to the canon something about Bernie, and gives a nervous edge to his first meeting with the Russian colonel soon afterwards. Later – much later – comes what is obviously meant to be the big horrific scene, the torture unto death of a beautiful woman by crushing her in a wine press. It fails to horrify, disgust, disturb, or even seem believable.
With three ambitious thrillers in as many years, besides devilling for the Daily Telegraph, Philip Kerr demonstrably has energy and determination on his side, to say nothing of Viking Penguin. He’ll go far. And he is developing a nice line in cheek. The Vienna of the immediate post-war years is bound up, in many people’s minds, with The Third Man. No one setting a story there can elude images left by Graham Greene, Carol Reed and the gifted cinematographer Robert Krasker. At one point Kerr goes out of his way to invite comparisons, introducing the very racket which damned Harry Lime, the black market in penicillin. He is not too shy to bring in Vienna’s four-man, four-nationality jeep patrol, made famous in the movie – except that he has discovered that a jeep was soon found to be too small, and that the patrol then used a larger command car. At the end, Kerr has Bernie wander bemusedly into a Café Mozart which is not in the right place. It is not the real Café Mozart at all. It is a mock-up created by the film unit working on The Third Man. More significantly, perhaps, this is the sole British presence in what is finally revealed to be, chronologically, the first thriller of the Cold War. Bernie (and Phil) play with the big boys, the Americans and Russians.