Showing posts with label Philip Kerr. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Philip Kerr. Show all posts

08 January 2020

The Rap Sheet



An uncertain year, 2019, but a lot of good books came out. Plenty of brand names, Bob Crais and John leCarre, Alan Furst and Steve Hunter. Here's a completely arbitrary list of my own.



Laura Lippman, Lady in the Lake.

A smart, tart, penetrating story about race and class, memory and regret, self-absorption, self-awareness, and the limits of transparency.



Chuck Greaves, Church of the Graveyard Saints.

If not exactly an eco-thriller, at least second cousin to Edward Abbey. A completely Western novel, and a meditation on how landscape inhabits us.



Lara Prescott, The Secrets We Kept.

Irresistible. A spy story, a history, a corrective to romance. The deep moans round with many voices. A book of echoes, unspoken sorrows, hope.



Don Winslow, The Border.

A fierce, furious, savage novel, a wounded lion dragging himself through a desolate waste, failing in everything but nerve. An absolute shocker.



Philip Kerr, Metropolis.

Bernie Gunther takes his curtain call. A look behind, the uncertain shadows before, a sense of irredeemable loss, and the hinges of horror creaking open under his feet.


A couple of books that weren't new this past year, but that I came on late. Mick Herron's Slow Horses and John Lawton's Black Out, both exemplars of why to start a series at the beginning. I also stumbled across Val McDermid's Forensics (2014), which is utterly indispensable, I kid you not.


Speaking of which, there was still nothing to beat the austere and windswept Shetland, all gorse and moody weather, or the sturdy and engaging Douglas Henshall as Jimmy Perez.



And best picture? Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. (I know, I don't like him either, but fair is fair.)

24 July 2019

Metropolis


David Edgerley Gates


Fritz Lang's movie Metropolis was released in 1927. Paranoid and hallucinatory, it's the first feature-length dystopian SF picture, but of course its spooky Teutonic future is at right angles to the spooky present of a doomed Weimar.


Philip Kerr's last Bernie Gunther novel, Metropolis, came out this year. It's set in 1928, and sure enough, Fritz Lang's chilly breath hovers over the story. (His wife, the screenwriter Thea von Harbou, steps into the book to pick Bernie's brain for cop shop detail - she's turning over some ideas in her head for a serial killer story.) Bernie remarks early on that for all its grime and despair, his home ground of Berlin mirrors both the human condition and the German national character, and you can say the same about a book or a movie, so is it true of this book or that movie?

Lang had a problematic relationship with the Nazis. He'd been raised Catholic, but his mother was originally Jewish. It was an obvious pressure point. And while we're on the subject, Thea, the wife, was a Nazi sympathizer from early days. Hitler and Goebbels were huge fans of Metropolis, as it happens. But after Lang made The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in late 1932, and Hitler came to power in January, 1933, the Nazis banned Mabuse, which was pretty clearly aimed at Hitler. Goebbels, on the other hand, offered Lang a job as head of UFA, the biggest German movie studio. It was bait-and-switch. Lang was being invited inside the tent, but the price of admission was spelled out: he was selling his soul. Lang said he'd think about it, and beat feet for France. Thea stayed behind and divorced him. UFA went to Leni Riefenstahl.

The question is often raised in the Bernie books - in fact, it's the central spine of the stories - What would you do as the world disintegrated around you, as it lost all moral force, what choices would or could you make? Metropolis goes back to the beginning, chronologically. It takes place before March Violets, the first of the novels. But it looks forward. The foreshadowing is all there, On the other hand, Bernie doesn't comment on what he sees and does from a future perspective. This dramatic irony, which is used in a number of the books, isn't present here. Bernie is blessed with ignorance of the future, even though the choices keep lining up. The answer to the questions is, You compromise just a little every day, and it gets easier.

How can we know, how could we possibly predict whether we'd rise to the occasion, show grace under pressure, or simply cave? It seems, generally speaking, as if even the major life-changing decisions we make are essentially taking the path of least resistance. If you've followed Bernie's history, as I have, over the thirteen books leading up to Metropolis, you respect him not just for his survival skills, but for his generosity, and his self-respect, even if he sometimes loses confidence. Seeing him here, right as his life is about to take a walk off a cliff, is enormously affecting, because you know what's coming, and he doesn't. The future of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, as frightening as it is, can't begin to conjure up the waiting chaos, and the terror.


Metropolis, the novel, is a swan song. Phil Kerr died last year. This is one terrific run of books.

05 April 2018

R.I.P. Philip Kerr


(I planned to write today's blog post about the good time had-by all appearances by ALL-at the Left Coast Crime Conference in Reno a couple of weeks back-thereby following up on my previous post about how to get the most out of your crime fiction conference experience. I will write that post in two weeks. I am moved instead to write this week of the passing of one of my heroes.)


On Friday, March 23rd, I got the word from an old friend that a mutual old friend had died. Crime writer and freelance editor Jim Thomsen texted me that Phillip Kerr died of cancer that day, aged just 62.

I suppose that in the strictest sense Mr. Kerr and I were not actually friends. I never met him in
person. The closest I got was trying and failing to find him in the green room before the Edgars the year he was nominated in the Best Novel category for his book The Lady from Zagreb.

And yet, I do consider him a friend. In much the same way that one girl in the movie Ten Things I Hate About You says of William Shakespeare, "We're in a relationship," I think of Phillip Kerr as an unwitting mentor, whose works have both delighted and provoked me.

And more, they made me want to work harder at the craft, to whet the edge of my facility with the written word, to forge characters who breathed and sweated and threatened and quailed and laughed and hated and fairly jumped off the page.

Philip Ballantyne Kerr was, by most accounts, a study in contradictions. Scottish-born, but no lover of Scotland, the child of devout Baptist parents who, by his own admission knew early on in life that "Jesus and I weren't going to get along," and a man who trained as a lawyer, yet despised the notion of practicing law.

An outsider by temperament, Kerr was bullied by other kids in school–and even teachers–in part because of his dark complexion. He later poured these experiences, and the feelings of isolation which attended them, into his fiction.

The result, in part, was Bernie Gunther.

Kerr's most famous creation, Gunther was, like Kerr himself, a study in contradictions: a former kriminalinspektor on the Berlin police department's famed Murder Squad, Gunther was a decorated veteran of World War I who lost his first wife in the flu epidemic which came hard on the heels of that war. A cop whose career thrived during the Weimar Republic, and who resigned from the police soon after the Nazis swept into power in 1933.

And yet Gunther eventually finds himself coerced into working for the Nazis. The reason they tolerate him (even as they disparage him as a "Jew-loving Bolshevik," among other things) is because they need someone with Gunther's talents. As Kerr has none other than the villainous Reinhard Heydrich put it to Gunther: Nazis are good at cracking skulls and shooting people. Any thug can do that. But when you need a good detective...

It's an effective set-up. But what Philip Kerr wrote was so much more than superb historical crime fiction. Like all great literary stylists, he was able to move fiction into the realm of great art: not so much literature as a brilliant expression of the universality of the human condition. Kerr possessed a knack for helping his readers understand, even sympathize, with people whose experiences seemed on the surface so vastly different from those of the reader.

Kerr proved especially adept at channeling the zeitgeist of early 20th century Germany, painting a portrait of these people (many of them fictional doppelgängers of actual historical figures) which was by turns scathing and sympathetic, unblinking, hard-edged, and in the end, fair. And in his Gunther novels he would return again and again to one of the questions which has haunted the world in the years since Hitler shot himself in his Berlin bunker: Why did the German people allow Hitler and his gang of thugs to rise unchecked in the first place?

Kerr's narrator Gunther is a brooder, so he is the perfect vessel for this and other existential questions posed to and about the people and the time. In the prologue to Kerr's latest book, Greeks Bearing Gifts, Kerr has his protagonist attempt–not for the first time–to answer this question:


But how is one ever to explain what happened? It was a question I used to see in the eyes of some of the American guests at the Grand Hotel in Cap Ferrat where, until recently, I was a concierge, when they realized I was German: How was it possible that your people could murder so many others? Well, it's like this: When you walk through a big fish market you appreciate just how alien and various life can be; it's hard to imagine how some of the fantastic, sinister, slipper-looking creatures you see laid out on the slab could even exist, and sometimes when I contemplate my fellow man, I have much the same feeling.

Myself, I'm a bit like an oyster. Years ago–in January 1933, to be exact–a piece of grit got into my shell and started to rub me the wrong way. But if there is a pearl inside me I think it's probably a black one. Frankly, I did a few things during the war of which I feel less than proud. This is not unusual. That's what war's about. It makes all of us who take part in it feel like we're criminals and that we've done something bad. Apart from the real criminals, of course; no way has ever been invented to make them feel bad about anything. With one exception, perhaps: the hangman at Landsberg. When he's given the chance, he can provoke a crisis of conscience in almost anyone.


The question haunts Gunther throughout the series, and since Kerr mastered the art of the non-linear plot thread beginning with 2011's Field Gray, he was able to revisit this central theme of his Gunther novels in a variety of inventive ways.

Kerr was a prolific writer by any stretch of the imagination. He wrote other series (including a recent triad of thrillers centered around a soccer team–soccer apparently being his favorite sport), a variety of standalone thrillers, even an acclaimed series of children's books!

I confess I haven't read any of the non-Gunther books yet. Now, unfortunately, it seems I'll have an opportunity to catch up on the rest of this remarkable writer's canon. And I have been looking forward to delving into his series of children's books with my son once he's old enough (they're middle reader books, a la Harry Potter, and my son is five, so I've got some time).

With this entry I have done my best to pay homage to a powerful artist whose work has had a galvanizing effect on my own. As with trying to capture the essence of all wondrous things, the effort strikes me as a bit like trying to describe an eclipse to a blind man: you're doomed to only do justice to one half of the experience.

All that said, my life is the richer for having known Philip Kerr in the context of his fiction. And isn't that really all we can ask of great art?

Thanks, Philip. And may you rest in peace, my friend.

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.

04 February 2016

Max Bialystock is Dead


The six finalists for the Edgar Awards have been announced, and each and every one of them is fantastic.  Go read them.


The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam's Sons)
The Lady From Zagreb by Philip Kerr (Penguin Random House – A Marian Wood Book)
Life or Death by Michael Robotham (Hachette Book Group – Mulholland Books)
Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy (Penguin Random House - Dutton)
Canary by Duane Swierczynski (Hachette Book Group – Mulholland Books)
Night Life by David C. Taylor (Forge Books)

But, while these six are basking in hope and glory, I'd also like to bring to your attention some other damn good books that came out in 2015.  

First of all, Phantom Angel by David Handler (Minotaur Books).  I love a good mystery, and I love it even better when it's funny.  Really funny.  This one is.  PI Benji Golden is hired by Morrie Frankel, who's putting on a $65 million musical adaptation of "Wuthering Heights" (yes, Emily's cheerful little romance).  If you're thinking Max Bialystock and "Springtime for Hitler", so was I.  And I was not disappointed!  Max, I mean, Morrie is killed, money vanishes, and Golden's real problem is sifting through Broadway gossip as high as a NY skyscraper to find the killer.  This was a truly FUN read.  It's also the second in this new series by David Handler - the first was Runaway Man.

For those of you who love the long slow burn...

A Pleasure and A Calling by Phil Hogan ((Picador) is classic British creep show.  You know.  The kind of story where everything is normal, perfectly normal.  Until one day, you notice that the ivy is twining the wrong way, and the next, the garbage can shifted, and later, who turned on that light, and why are you in the attic...  Well, in this one, we have Mr. Heming, real estate agent.  Wonderful man.  Friendly, helpful.  First to call.  And has keys to every house he has ever sold. Who likes to drop in, when nobody's there. Who likes to see how people live.  Who is very, very particular.  Who has motives that no one has ever dreamed of.  Who may have fallen in love.  Or not.  Who finds himself in a situation.  And knows that there is always, always, always a way out...  He's done it before...  Seriously, check it out.  You'll stay up for a while.

And now for something completely different:

The Lost Treasures of R&B by Nelson George (Akashic Books).  Nelson George's professional bodyguard D Hunter is on the job protecting rapper Asya Roc at an underground fight club in Brooklyn.  But the rapper has arranged to buy some illegal guns; an old acquaintance named Ice is the courier; a robbery is attempted, a shoot-out follows.  Who were the gunmen?  Why did they want those guns?  And who was being set up - the rapper or the Ice?  D tries to figure all of this out and, at the same time, to track down the rarest soul music single ever recorded.  The voice of this book is very real, and the whole mood of the book is an R&B rapper High Fidelity noir thriller, and I loved it. Nelson George, knows his music:  a former editor for Billboard Magazine, columnist for the Village Voice, R&B, currently co-executive producer of VH1's Hip Hop Honors and executive producer of BET's American Gangster.  He also knows Brooklyn.  The Lost Treasures of R&B is the third in the D Hunter series:  the other two are The Accidental Hunter and The Plot Against Hip-Hop: A Novel.


A brand new series to keep an eye on:

The Magician's Daughter by Judith Janeway (Poisoned Pen Press).  Magician Valentine Hill always introduces her act by announcing “Reality is an illusion. Illusion is reality, and nothing is what it seems.”  She learned that, and many other things, from her grifter mother, who is still on the loose, and her magician father. From both she learned a whole lot of tricks that will come in handy as she struggles to deal with wealthy socialites, car mechanics, cab drivers, and FBI agents.  Most of whom are also ruthless criminals, psycho killers, and seductive gangsters.  And, of course, her amoral, abusive, never-retired mother who is still on the con, and still very, very, very dangerous...

And everyone needs a good spy thriller:

Nobody Walks by Mick Herron (Soho Crime).  Tom Bettany is working at a meat processing plant in France when he gets a voicemail from an Englishwoman he doesn’t know telling him that his estranged 26-year-old son is dead.  Liam Bettany fell from his London balcony, where he was smoking pot.  Bettany goes back to London to find out the truth about his son’s death.  Because Liam might have been a druggie, but Bettany isn't just the quiet butcher he's been for the last few years.  He's been around, he knows a lot, perhaps too much, and a lot of people are afraid of his return, from incarcerated mob bosses to high powered bosses of MI5.  None of them appreciate his return.  Or did someone arrange to get him back, literally in the worst way possible?   Stylish, noirish, a don't trust anyone read that will definitely surprise you.

Under the why didn't anyone tell me? classification of series:

Down Among the Dead Men by Peter Lovesey (Soho Crime).  Miss Gibbon, the most disliked teacher (of art) in a posh private girls' school vanishes in a Sussex town on the south coast of England. She is not missed, especially since her replacement is a gorgeous male teacher with a fancy car and some boundary issues. Meanwhile, detective Peter Diamond finds himself in Sussex, with the person he hates the most:  his supervisor, Assistant Chief Constable Georgina Dallymore.  She's been called to lead a Home Office internal investigation into a Sussex detective who failed to link DNA evidence of a relative to a seven-year-old murder case.  And she takes Diamond with her.  What she doesn't know is that Diamond knows the suspended officer.  And over time, he notices unsettling connections between the cold case and the missing art teacher. And there's also the mystery of why C.C. Dallymore was really called on the case in the first place.  I loved the plot, I loved the characters, but most of all, I loved the wit.  Why didn't someone tell me about Peter Diamond before?

Well, that's all for this week.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some catching up to do....




02 October 2014

Anachronism Revisited


by Brian Thornton

In May of last year I wrote an extensive post on what I deemed "Cosplay in Fiction." In that post I
Not THIS kind of cosplay
promised to elaborate further on what constitutes "cosplay" in historical fiction in my next post.

I didn't.

And I'm still mulling how best to elaborate and wrap up that subject in a blog posting to appear in this space in the not-too-distant future.

In the mean-time I intend to explore a tangential line of thought, centering on examples of what works and what doesn't in the historical mystery author's quest to bring believable, engaging historical fiction to the modern reader. And I'm going to spread it out over a number of my upcoming blog posts.

You see, this year I have the great privilege of moderating an historical mystery fiction panel in November, at Bouchercon.

So as I've been turning over in my mind the questions I plan to put to some of the best historical mystery novelists around, my mind rolled back to the post linked above, and the question of anachronism in historical fiction.

And not surprisingly, I've got a few thoughts.

Not THIS type, either
Not least of which is what works and what doesn't when attempting to evoke a certain time period. This is probably one of the most difficult aspects of the historical mystery juggling act: paint a picture of life in another era, likely with characters who speak a language other than English, and still make them seem natural and unaffected, all without diving so deep into period language that the modern reader does not get either lost or completely put off.

No mean feat.

And THIS? Just flat out disturbing....
I have some examples of what I think works, and what I think doesn't. And as always, I'm prepared to share.

As I said, I've been giving this sort of thing a lot of thought lately. Partly, as I said above, because of Bouchercon and partly because of my own on-going final pass through a long-percolating historical mystery novel of my own.

Let me state at this point that I have nothing but admiration for anyone who attempts this ludicrous balancing act– whether they fail or succeed. I for one have always found it a formidable challenge, and feel I've failed more times than I've succeeded. (Which is a large part of the reason that the final draft of my current book project is my third complete draft!).

And with that said, let's move on to what works, and what doesn't. This week's entry:

Slang!

I was reading a mystery novel a while back and a fairly innocuous turn of phrase knocked me completely out of the story- you know, that experience that is usually the last thing any author wants to foist upon their audience.

The phrase in question was "Don't get your knickers in a twist."

Now, the author of the book in question is British and, although I'm an American, I'm fairly
Not THIS type of anachronism
Anglophilic, and am comfortable with British slang expressions, so ordinarily this wouldn't be a problem for me.

The problem was two-fold: the setting, and the character speaking. It wasn't set in modern England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland. And the speaker wasn't a citizen of any of those countries.

The character in question was a citizen of ancient Rome, speaking to another citizen of that city, in
that city, circa 80 A.D.

Hello, Anachronism!

Now, I get what the writer in question was trying to do. Trying to portray ancient Romans talking casually with each other, in an intimate, familiar manner. No mean feat, seeing as they spoke Latin and not English.

At the very least wouldn't they have said something like, "Don't get your sublegaria* in a twist"?

I mean, the only way this character could have sounded more out of time would be if he had suggested to his comrade that he "slow your roll"!

The problem for me as a reader at this point was that, while I was and am willing to concede that Romans, like every other variety of human being since the dawn of time, had their own pet slang phrases and humorous sayings, I had a hard time believing that they used this particular one.

Further compounding the problem was the fact that the speech in this novel was so anachronistic that it pulled me right out of the story. And this was just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the story I kept picturing these ancient Roman characters speaking with cockney accents. At any moment I expected them to break in rhyming slang!

This brought to mind an author who actually gets this sort of thing right. I have raved before about the writing of Philip Kerr, a British author of the Bernie Gunther series of novels, set in Nazi and post-war Germany during the 1930s and 1940s.

For my money Kerr gets Gunther just right: in some ways a morally compromised figure (as many
Germans who survived the first world war and the subsequent years-long party which was Weimar Germany of the 1920s were);former homicide detective and sometimes private investigator who has repeated dealings with the Nazis while never becoming one of them or buying in to what they were selling.

Gunther is truly a man of his time, believing, as many in Germany quietly did, that the Nazis were by turns keystone cops and murderous thugs. And even during his dealings with them he manages to chart a course that leaves him (for the most part) morally clean.

What helps Kerr really sell Gunther and the rest of his cast of period characters as believable avatars of the period in question is his ability to take German slang from that time and translate it into English, without it losing its period flavor.

For example, a pistol is a "lighter." A cigarette is a "nail" (for your coffin, obviously).  When asked during a 2009 interview whether these slang words were genuine or of his own invention, Kerr said:

"The slang is not my own invention nor is it anything to do with the police. The words are often more literal translations of real German phrases instead of their English equivalents. It's as simple as that."

With all due respect, the man is being far too modest. It's not as simple as that. While it's true that Nazi Germany is a period of history which has passed down to us a wealth of first person narratives (much of it truly horrifying), the skill herein lies in the choice of these words, knowing which concepts fit into the dialogue without extensive explanation, seamlessly, if you will.

Imagine trying to do that with such freighted concepts as gleichschaltung (the notion of every aspect of a society fitting together and working like cogs in a machine, keeping that society moving and well-run) or the ever-popular schadenfreude (joy experienced as a result of witnessing the suffering of others).

Sometimes it's what you don't try to say that sells your story. The key is in knowing what works, and what doesn't.

Making your Roman citizen sound like a cockney cab driver? Not so much. Having your German detective light up a nail, or take a lighter away from a drunken member of the Hitler Youth? Perfect.

Next time, more of what works, and what doesn't in historical fiction!