Saturday, March 24, 2018

Farewell and Thanks to Philip Kerr

One feels the strong desire, when writing about Edinburgh-born novelist Philip Kerr—who passed away yesterday, March 23, at the early age of 62—to simply quote from his many books and be done with it; your own prose contributions seem trifling and etiolated by comparison. Kerr took particular delight in crafting his character descriptions. Here, for instance, is how—in 2008’s A Quiet Flame (one of my favorites among Kerr’s numerous works)—he depicts Carlos Fuldner, an Argentine-born member of Adolf Hitler’s SS, who helped Nazis flee to South America after World War II:
From the back of his well-oiled head I judged Fuldner to be around forty. His German was fluent but with a little soft colour on the edges of the tones. To speak the language of Goethe and Schiller, you have to stick your vowels in a pencil sharpener. He liked to talk, that much was evident. He wasn’t tall and he wasn’t good-looking, but then he wasn’t short or ugly either, just ordinary, in a good suit with good manners and a nice manicure. … His mouth was wide and sensuous, his eyes were lazy but intelligent and his forehead was as high as a church cupola.
That same novel offers this sketch of a young woman, Anna Yagubsky, who will help the story’s protagonist, Berlin police detective-turned-private eye Bernie Gunther, solve a ghastly murder in Buenos Aires that appears similar to crimes committed years ago in Germany:
She was tall and slim with a spectacular waterfall of black curly hair. Her eyes were the shape and colour of chocolate-covered almonds. She wore a tailored tweed jacket buttoned tight at the waist, and a matching long pencil skirt that made me wish I had a couple of sheets of paper. Her figure was all right if you liked them built like expensive thoroughbreds. I happened to like them built that way just fine.
The Quiet Flame was the fifth novel Kerr produced in what he’d imagined originally as a one-off, later a trilogy, starring Gunther, the sardonic, self-deprecating, Nazi-detesting, half-Jewish and sometimes wholly self-destructive Berliner who became famous for solving crimes during World War II and beyond. Gunther debuted in March Violets (1989), which was set in 1936—before the war broke out—and found him being hired by a steel millionaire who wanted to know not only what had become of diamonds owned by his recently slain daughter, but who had killed her and her husband. The sleuth returned in The Pale Criminal (1990) and again in A German Requiem (1991), that latter tale taking place in the war’s wake and dispatching Gunther to Vienna, where he was expected to help a former colleague accused of shooting an American Nazi-hunter.

“I never signed on to be a writer just to do a series …,” Kerr told me during a 2010 interview for The Rap Sheet. “Besides, it’s not always a good idea to give people what they want until they want it more. When I finished Book 3 (German Requiem) of the original trilogy, I didn’t have the impression that I was putting aside anything important.”

He went off, instead, to pen a succession of standalone thrillers, including A Philosophical Investigation (1992), Dead Meat (1993), Dark Matter: The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton (2002), and finally Hitler’s Peace (2005), which builds around plots against Josef Stalin, President Franklin Roosevelt, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, all of whom are headed to a conference in Teheran, Iran, in 1943.

Not until 2006—a decade and a half after the publication of A German Requiem—did Bernie Gunther make his unlikely return, in The One from the Other. That has been followed since by almost annual sequels, among them If the Dead Rise Not (which won the 2009 Ellis Peters Historical Award), Prague Fatale (2011), The Lady From Zagreb (2015), The Other Side of Silence (2016), and last year’s Prussian Blue. The 13th Gunther outing, Greeks Bearing Gifts (Marian Wood Books/Putnam)—which finds him sent away to Athens, in 1957, to look into the suspicious sinking of a ship and the murder of an ex-Wehrmacht Navy man—is set for release on April 3.

According to Agence France-Presse, prior to his death Kerr had completed the first draft of a 14th Gunther adventure, which is “due for publication next year.”

Philip Ballantyne Kerr took his first breath in Edinburgh, Scotland, on February 22, 1956. He studied law and philosophy at England’s University of Birmingham, before embarking on what might well have become a lucrative and lifelong career in advertising. However, Kerr despised being an advertising copywriter. The only good thing about it, he later insisted, was that it left him ample free time to indulge in his genuine interest: fiction-writing. Kerr had dreamed of concocting fiction ever since he was about 9 years old, so he chose to fill part of the free time his job allowed him scratching out a historical novel inspired by his visits to Berlin. The task took him three years, but resulted in March Violets. After the success of that endeavor, Kerr decided he was ready to become a full-time author.

Some readers, mostly younger ones, may know Kerr as “P.B. Kerr,” the byline under which he created the “Children of the Lamp” series for young readers, the latest installment of which was 2011’s The Grave Robbers of Genghis Khan. Others will recognize him for False Nine (2012) and two preceding yarns featuring Scott Mason, a London football manager-cum-amateur detective. Or they may be familiar with the pair of standalone thrillers for adults he completed over the last decade: Prayer (2013) and Research (2014).

But it’s surely the Bernie Gunther series for which Kerr is destined to be best-remembered. Those intricate tales, contrasting mostly quotidian crimes against the larger, wider-ranging atrocities perpetrated by Nazi Germany, are filled with moral complexities and the pain of both war’s violence and war’s survival. They are social histories, really, and without question are also some of the finest, richest crime novels you’ll ever read. Gunther—who, Philip Kerr confessed, represented the “the dark side of my own character”—proves to be an ideal guide (if occasionally misguided himself) through Kerr’s blended world of fiction and non-fiction.

I like this description of the character, from the biography page of Kerr’s Web site:
Gunther is … a gumshoe in the grand and seamy tradition of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. But he surely has the toughest beat in detective fiction—not least because the definition of crime in his world is so strange, so skewed by ideology. ‘The [German] National Socialist regime had a weird and perverted idea of crime,’ says Kerr. ‘It was far more interested in rounding up Jews and Communists than in solving real crimes. And they spent a lot of time covering up true crime when it did happen, so that it didn’t reflect badly on the authorities. More than that, professional criminals could apply for jobs in the SS and the Gestapo. It didn’t matter that they were not committed Party members; the Nazis were masters at delegating cruelty.’

Throughout the books Gunther spends his time uncovering nasty truths while trying desperately not to get sucked into Nazism’s gaping maw. Does that make him a hero, a kind of reluctant resister? Kerr says not. ‘It’s perfectly possible to be a hero on a Monday and a coward on a Wednesday. Gunther is morally ambiguous. As a patriotic German watching his country being hijacked by a bunch of thugs, he has a dilemma: how to stay alive and try and prosper without selling out. I am looking to paint him into a corner so that he can’t cross the floor without getting paint on his shoes.’
I didn’t know Philip Kerr well. I had the chance to interview him only on two occasions, both times via e-mail—once for The Rap Sheet (as previously mentioned), and again for Kirkus Reviews, after his 2011 Gunther novel, Field Gray, was published. I was overjoyed, in 2016, by the opportunity to finally meet him in person, during a book-signing event at the old Seattle Mystery Bookshop. And I have heard since from people who’d enjoyed greater contact with him. They mention his civility, his humor, the depth of his observations on life and history, his generosity in answering readers’ questions about his work. I am saddened by the idea that I will no longer have chances to communicate with Philip Kerr, and that his presence is gone from the community of crime-fiction writers.

But I still have his books. For that, I’ll be forever grateful.

FOLLOW-UP I: Most stories published over the last couple of days about Kerr’s sudden demise don’t tell the cause of his passing. But this one from The New York Times attributes it to bladder cancer.

FOLLOW-UP II: The Bookseller reported late last year that UK publisher Quercus had “acquired three new novels in Philip Kerr’s historical noir series featuring Detective Bernie Gunther.” Kerr had apparently finished composing the first draft of one of those, which is to be titled Metropolis and issued in the spring of 2019. The Bookseller says its story “takes Kerr’s hero back to the dying days of the Weimar Republic just before Hitler came to power.” This same Bookseller piece, by the way, mentions that “A Bernie Gunther mini-series is in development at HBO with Tom Hanks as executive producer.” Mystery*File has a bit more information about that project here.

READ MORE:Philip Kerr Obituary,” by Danuta Kean (The Guardian); “Remembering Philip Kerr,” by Otto Penzler (CrimeReads); “In Memoriam,” by Ayo Onatade (Shotsmag Confidential); “A Tribute to Philip Kerr,” by Garrick Webster (Crime Fiction Lover); “Philip Kerr (1956–2018): A Tribute,” by José Ignacio Escribano (A Crime Is Afoot); “R.I.P., Philip Kerr,” by Brian Thornton (SleuthSayers); “Pay It Forward: Philip Kerr,” by Mark Pryor (The Thrill Begins); “Guest Blog: Mark Pryor Remembers Philip Kerr” (MysteryPeople).


Anonymous said...

When I finished reading the works of Raymond Chandler, I was saddened that never again would I see his like. And then I discovered Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr, who surpassed the master. RIP, Mr. Kerr, and condolences to his family.

Ali Karim said...

A fantastic look at the work of Phil Kerr, great stuff indeed, thank you for this