27 April 2016

Berlin Noir

David Edgerley Gates

I mentioned last time around that I'd discovered a new enthusiasm, the Bernie Gunther mystery series written by Philip Kerr. These are period stories, set mostly during WWII, and because Bernie's a German homicide cop, he has to answer to the Nazi chain of command.

I picked up on Bernie mid-stride, reading A MAN WITHOUT BREATH first - the ninth book, which takes place in 1943, and involves the murder of Polish military prisoners by the Russians, at Katyn. My habit, generally, if I happen on a writer I like, is to go back and read their books in the order they were written. Right? Seems only fair. In this case, as it was with Alan Furst, I snatched up what was immediately available, and took one step forward, with THE LADY FROM ZAGREB, and one step back, with PRAGUE FATALE, and then FIELD GRAY. Next on the list is the Berlin Noir trilogy, the first three Bernie novels. I couldn't help myself. I grabbed whatever title was on the library shelf. I was too impatient to wait my turn.

I think there are three elements that make the books so fascinating. The first is historical irony. In more than one novel, actually, the story's framed with a look back, from the later 1940's or the early 1950's. Secondly, there's a constant sense of threat, the Nazi regime a bunch of backstabbers, and Bernie hangs on princes' favors. One dangerous patron is Reinhard Heydrich, a chilly bastard who meets an appropriate end. And thirdly, Bernie is really trying to be a moral person, against all odds. You go along to get along, to simply survive, in a nest of vipers, and hope it doesn't rub off on you. After seeing the Special Action Groups at work in Russia, and himself participating, Bernie is sickened by the whole enterprise. He suspects, too, that the handwriting's on the wall.

Bernie's a Berliner, a guy with street smarts, and too smart a mouth. He fought in the first war, in the trenches, and started out as a cop during Weimar. He has no politics. He's as contemptuous, early on, of the Communists as he is of the Nazis, and then, the better he gets to know the Nazis as they consolidate their power, he comes to realize they aren't the lesser of two evils. They are evil. And it does rub off on you.

This is the question often raised in Alan Furst's books, and the two writers have some things in common, aside from the time-frame and the context of their novels. We don't in fact know how we might behave at a personal breaking point, in the context of Vichy France or Nazi Berlin. It's comforting to think we might Bogart through, but daily life becomes an enormous struggle, for the simplest of things. Having a conscience, or a moral compass, might be a luxury we couldn't afford. We might not rise to the occasion. One of Bernie's superiors in Minsk even quotes Luther - "Here I stand" - and then dismisses it. You can't be serious, he tells Bernie. There's no room for that.

And in the middle of all this, institutionalized murder, mass hysteria, people still commit common crimes for common reasons. They kill people for shoes, or bread, or envy. FIELD GRAY has Bernie trying to solve a homicide inside a POW camp. The fact that he's a POW, and the camp is run by the Russians, only makes the whole thing more surreal. Often enough, it isn't some crazed Nazi weirdness at work, although that usually informs it. Everything's out of square. The truly strange thing is that you begin to see this unbalanced world as somehow the norm, at least to the degree of understanding how to navigate it, and once you go there, you've stepped over the edge. The pit opens.


  1. David, interesting to contemplate what you said about how daily life becomes an enormous struggle and how we might not rise to the occasion. I think we saw that in real life during the war, or at any time really. -- And I've had Berlin Noir on my TBR list for ages. Glad for the reminder and hopefully now I'll get to it sooner rather than later.

  2. I've put Philip Kerr on my list. These sound excellent.

  3. You've got me interested but I'm also confused. The trilogy you mention is part of the Bernie series? Or it comprises the Bernie series? Or? And what is the actual order of the books?

    Yours is an interesting and moral review. I don't think I've ever encountered one where the reviewer reflected like you've done. It's quite stirring.

  4. I really enjoy the Bernie series, for its historical accuracy and surprising amount of humor. But a lot of my enjoyment is because he does embrace that moral ambiguity. Fear, pain, hunger, etc., will make people do all sorts of things that they never imagined they would do. And justifying it. (It doesn't take war to do that, BTW: I keep thinking of the people who stood outside and screamed at the bus full of refugee children in Arizona; or the people who stood screaming at the first lone black child going to school in 1960 in New Orleans.)

  5. Anon - Go to PK's entry in Wikipedia, or his Author Page, which both give you the titles in order. The first three Bernie books were later reissued in the omnibus edition Berlin Noir.

  6. I need to take another look at Philip Kerr. I’d read The Shot (about JFK) quite some time back. He did a LOT of brand-name dropping in it, not in the sense of Ian Fleming telling us what booze, smokes, and guns Bond liked, but to set the era, albeit overdoing it in the process.

    The Nazi-era novels sound interesting, so I’m going to drop in at my local library and see what I can rustle up. Thanks, David.


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