by Armen Pandola
Back before the ebook and the ubiquitous internet, books were bought at bookstores. Some people liked to go to the biggies - Doubledays, Barnes and Noble, Borders - or the book departments that could be found in most major department stores. Buying a book that was just released and cracking it open on all those clean, never-before-touched pages was a thrill no many how many times you did it.
I enjoyed that but even more, I loved perusing the shelves at used bookstores and exploring books that had been read or at least bought before by someone who had given it her tacit endorsement. Sometimes the former reader had written her name on the title page or even left a comment or two inside. Sometimes the book was a gift and a happy birthday or anniversary message was written by the giver to the lucky new owner - "Dear Eileen, I will never forget our all too brief escape and I hope when you read this you will think of me. Tom" That was an actual message in one book I bought - my first book by Philip Kerr. Later, I thought how strange a selection it was for what appeared to be a romantic gift. I wondered what made Eileen sell or give it away - or did her heirs find it a la the children of Francesca Johnson of Madison County?
I was lucky enough to find many treasures in used book stores. Books that had been long out of print or were hard to find - or I had never heard of, but seemed to be worth the $1.99 or even $4.99 asked. The book with the message was Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr. I had never heard of Kerr, but I loved books that took place in foreign cities and I loved 'film noir.' Finding this book was like finding one entitled 'A Book Just for You!'
Berlin Noir was actually three books in one:
March Violets. London: Viking, 1989 set in 1936 Berlin
The Pale Criminal. London: Viking, 1990 set in 1938 Berlin and
A German Requiem. London: Viking, 1991 set in Berlin/Vienna 1947–48
March Violets (the book title refers to a name given by Nazis for those who joined the party only after Hitler had pushed through laws that effectively made him a dictator in March, 1933) introduced a new character into the gumshoe world, Bernie Gunther, a former cop now private-eye in Berlin in 1936. The idea of a private dick in Nazi Germany seemed so obviously a great idea that, like all great ideas, you immediately wondered why no one had thought of it, before. The plot was appropriately serpentine, bringing Gunther into contact with the SS, the SA, Gestapo and a variety of Nazi nuts, culminating in his meeting with Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Holocaust. Some of the action takes place at the infamous 1936 Olympics which were held in Berlin and used by the Nazis as propaganda, showing the world how efficient and peaceful Nazis were, really. In the climax of the novel, Gunther is forced to go to Dachau concentration camp and obtain information from one of its inmates that will help Heydrich keep control of the SS. Here is Bernie describing that hell-hole:
How do you describe the indescribable? How can you talk about something that made you mute with horror? There were many more articulate than me who were simply unable to find the words. It is a silence born of shame, for even the guiltless are guilty. Shorn of all human rights, man reverts back to the animal. The starving steal from the starving, and personal survival is the only consideration, which overrides, even censors, the experience. Work sufficient to destroy the human spirit was the aim of Dachau, with death the unlooked-for by-product. Survival was through the vicarious suffering of others: you were safe for a while when it was another man who was being beaten or lynched; for a few days you might eat the ration of the man in the next cot after he had expired in his sleep.
The Pale Criminal (the term is from Nietzsche's Zarathustra and the “pale criminal” is a study of the evil of small-minded people, the kind of evil that Hannah Arendt would call 'banal') is no less exciting and Bernie is forced to re-enter the Berlin police force in order to solve a series of murders of blonde hair/blued girls. Again, he gets to work for Heydrich.
A German Requiem (the reference is to a James Fenton poem) finds Bernie in post-war Berlin after spending a couple of years in a Russian POW camp. Things are not good in Berlin and his wife (he got married during the war) is forced to have sex with Allied officers to keep from starving. Bernie decides to take a case that gets him out of Berlin. He goes to Vienna where things are somewhat better. Again, the plot is not as important as the prose:
These days, if you are a German you spend your time in Purgatory before you die, in earthly suffering for all your country’s unpunished and unrepented sins, until the day when, with the aid of the prayers of the Powers – or three of them, anyway — Germany is finally purified. For now we live in fear. Mostly it is fear of the Ivans, matched only by the almost universal dread of venereal disease, which has become something of an epidemic, although both afflictions are generally held to be synonymous.
Kerr tried to avoid the fate of all crime writers who pen a memorable PI, then write the serial books from A to Z about the life and cases of the same shamus, but it was inevitable that Kerr would return to such a nuanced character as Bernie Gunther. While his other books are good, only one, A Philosophical Investigation, rises to the heights of his Gunther books and, perhaps, exceeds them.
Investigation takes place in the near future when society is able to detect, by means of genetic analysis, those citizens who are capable of serial killing. By an unfortunate error, one citizen who is so detected comes into possession of this most secret list. Its very existence is state secret. He is appalled not only to know that such a list exists, but to find his name on it, So, in order to serve mankind, he decides to eliminate all the people on this list, thus ridding the world of these potential beasts. Of course, in so doing, he becomes what the list predicted he would. Kerr, also, wrote a series of children's books, Children of the Lamp, which are very popular, and a trio of books about and written from the perspective of Scot Manson, the team coach for London City FC, a soccer team - January Window, Hand of God and False Nine. I have not read those since to do so seemed to me an act of infidelity to Bernie who has suffered a mountain of betrayals.
Kerr returned to Bernie 11 more times:
The One From the Other – Berlin, 1949: Bernie heads for Munich when his work with the SS in the Ukraine make him a target for Nazi hunters.
A Quiet Flame – Buenos Aires, 1950: Bernie heads to Argentina where many ex-Nazis find a home under the Peron regime.
If The Dead Rise Not – Berlin, 1934: Kerr takes Bernie back in time to Berlin and the preparation for the 1936 Olympics.
Field Gray - USSR and the Eastern Front 1941-44: Bernie has to use all of his formidable powers to break free of the SS and its killing fields in the East.
Prague Fatale – Berlin/Prague, 1941: Bernie has to play up to his old friend Heydrich who thinks people are trying to kill him.
A Man Without Breath – Berlin, 1943: Bernie must investigate the massacre of Polish troops for his new friend, Josef Goebbels.
The Lady From Zagreb – Summer 1942: Bernie gets to work for Goebbels again in tracking down the father of a new Nazi cinema starlet.
The Other Side of Silence – The French Riviera 1956: Bernie is now a hotel concierge, and the series is getting a little worn.
Prussian Blue – The French Riviera, 1956, again: Bernie is found by the head of the East German Stasi and blackmailed into becoming an assassin.
Greeks Bearing Gifts – Munich/Athens, 1956: Bernie goes to Greece but not to visit the sites - he's on a deadly serious job that could be his last.
Then out of the blue, I learn that Kerr is dead, at 62, of bladder cancer. I was very sad. There are not many authors I have followed and read as closely as I did Philip Kerr. Every new book was bought and savored. I even listened to a few of those I had especially liked reading and let me add that the narrator of this series is one of the best in the business, John Lee. If you liked any of Kerr's books, download the audio version and enjoy your commute or workout.
As someone who has read all of Kerr's Gunther books, I came to feel as if Bernie were an old pal, a boyhood friend and that it wasn't Kerr who died but Bernie. I missed him and his sardonic wit, his deep calm while staring at a Luger pointed at his always all-too-young heart, his way of rolling with the bombs tossed his way by a wake of the deadliest demons west of a gulag. Bernie was fun and always surprising. He was the kind of pal you could turn to at 3 a.m. and find whatever your dreams could handle.
Then, I read that Bernie isn't dead. He's coming back, one last time. Kerr penned the book before taking that final trip to the coroner's.
Metropolis - Berlin 1928: Kerr returns to the beginning of Bernie's career for the end of the series.
I buy it, I download it (yeah, I'm OK with it) and - that's it. I can't break it open. I mean, what would you do if you had a date with one of your best buddies, but you knew - you knew! - that when you saw him and spent some time with him that it would be the last time you ever saw him. Do you rush into it, call him and head out for the nearest rathskeller? Or do you delay the inevitable because you know that every day you wait is another day you have Bernie alive and well?
It's been a while now and I still haven't opened Metropolis. In the meantime, I think, why hasn't some enterprising producer made Bernie into a great TV series? Can we get a Swedish company to do it - the same one that did the Wallander series? Or maybe the German one that did Berlin Babylon?
I know, all this is just an excuse, just a way to delay the inevitable.
Can you give me just a little more time?