Showing posts with label Bernie Gunther. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bernie Gunther. Show all posts

02 November 2018

The Complexity • Plausibility Intersection

by Janice Law

How about that title? In another life I spent time in academia and learned that a fancy title is better than an intelligible essay. However, pretension aside, the tension between complexity and plausibility remains one of the troubling features of our favorite genre.

It does seem unfortunate that the red herrings, misdirections, and deceptions of one sort or another so dear to the hearts of mystery writers and readers are usually the least plausible story features. Indeed, the more ingenious the puzzles the less realistic the plot. I may have been the only reader disenchanted with The DaVinci Code but I’ll bet I was not the only one who had to jettison all expectation of reality.

Worse, the more intricate the plot – and as someone who has always struggled with plotting I have the greatest admiration for the well-wrought narrative – the less memorable the story. Think about it: the great crime and punishment plots are the simple ones, in some cases, with the denoument foretold. In contrast, how many of us can remember more than the briefest impression of even the best crime novels? The reason, of course, is that in the service of mystification and suspense, the story inevitably loses simplicity in twists and surprises.
Don't listen to witches

This makes a good mystery fun to read but hard to remember, compared to say, Macbeth, which can be summarized in a phrase: witches’ prophesy drives noble Scot to regicide, tyranny and disaster. Try to summarize the life trajectory of the characters in Gone Girl, as compared to the biography of the ill fated Oedipus Rex: Abandoned king’s son returns to unknowingly kill father, marry mother; plague ensues. Simpler yet is the tale of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment: Student kills pawnbroker and has regrets.

Oedipus
There is no suspense in any of these, except the uneasy anticipation of the worst, and red herrings and clever plot are superfluous. The narrative line goes straight to the jugular, and once the action gets underway, the narrative is not just plausible but inevitable.

Few modern mystery writers will be so fortunate as to construct a plot as simple, powerful, and memorable as the classic crime tragedies, although John Steinbeck contributed a great novella of crime and sorrow with Of Mice and Men. Instead, rather surprisingly in a genre so reliant on action and plotting, the lasting memories of our favorites really rely on atmosphere and character.

With the possible exception of Who Killed Roger Ackroyd, the clever twists of Agatha Christie plots are lost to oblivion. Fortunately she created two iconic detectives in Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. They are what one remembers along with those toxic country houses, vengeful small towns, and dangerous resorts.

Ditto for Raymond Chandler whose plots were never very watertight but whose Philip Marlowe, stylized diction, and lush California settings remain indelible. Dorothy Sayers, like Agatha Christie, was fortunate to create two great protagonists with Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. Their plots are forgotten but not her characters, nor her snobbish delight in top nation venues and the heyday of the class system.

More recently, we have had detectives like Kurt Wallander, Bernie Gunther, Thomas Lynley, Barbara Havers, Commissaire Adamsberg, and Adam Dalgleish, all enjoyable to read with delightfully complex – but ultimately forgettable plots. Instead, we remember Gunther’s ghastly WW2 East front setting, Adamsberg’s dreamy eccentricities, Wallander’s decline into dementia, Lynley’s romantic tragedy, Havers’ dogged persistence, Dalgleish’s poetry.

Clever devices and complex narratives propel novels to the best seller list. But what lingers in the reader’s mind are character and atmosphere. And what gives writers long careers are memorable protagonists. The plots can be – and maybe must be, given market trends – exaggerated, the characters must still be plausible if the work is to linger in the mind.

Getting the balance right is difficult. I suspect that the tension between exciting (and surprising) action and the plausibly human is the reason why, despite excellent, sometimes brilliant, writing even the best crime fiction is set a step below contemporary or literary novels.

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.