Monday, September 20, 2010

{review} philip kerr: sero sed serio?

Philip Kerr The One From The Other (2006)

The One from the Other: A Bernie Gunther Mystery The One from the Other: A Bernie Gunther Novel (Bernie Gunther Novels)

Philip Kerr's detective novels featuring Bernie Gunther are so far superior to almost any other historical crime fiction that I hesitate even to categorise him within that genre. Kerr has perfectly captured an historical period (Germany in the 1930s and 1940s) and has created a protagonist of such quality that he must surely be the new Philip Marlowe:
The house was about a five-minute drive west of the station. A brass plaque on one of the obelisk-shaped gateposts said it was a villa, but probably only because they were a little shy about using a word like 'palace'. It took me a whole minute to climb the steps to the front door, where a fellow dressed to go cheek-to-cheek with Ginger Rogers was waiting to take my hat and act as my scout across the marble plains that lay ahead. He stayed with me as far as the library, then wheeled around silently and set off for home again before it started to get dark.
I first read Kerr's loose trilogy - March Violets (1989), The Pale Criminal (1990), A German Requiem (1991); published in an omnibus as Berlin Noir (1993) - a few years ago and was disappointed that there were no others in the series. Fortunately, The One From The Other (2006) marked Bernie Gunther's return and has now been joined by A Quiet Flame (2008), If the Dead Rise Not (2009) and Field Grey (forthcoming 2010).

Berlin Noir: March Violets; The Pale Criminal; A German Requiem
A Quiet Flame: A Novel (Bernie Gunther Novels)If the Dead Rise Not: A Bernie Gunther Novel

Kerr has a mastery of the gritty details of the 1930s and 40s. Gunther's world is totally believable. There are so many little details which ring true: colours, smells, uncomfortable sensations, etc.:
He smelled faintly of cologne and hypocrisy.

In the half darkness and close confines of the confessional his voice sounded particularly infernal. He probably laid it on a greased rack and left it to smoke over a hickory-wood fire when he went to bed at night.

...I turned to face a man wearing a neat, grey suit with a wing collar that looked as if it had been tailored by Pythagoras.
Kerr also has the ability to shock the reader, as in his account of Dachau, for instance, or in his introduction of real historical figures into the narrative - Eichmann and Heydrich among others. And his stories are tight. I'm quite interested in 'coincidence' - so many crime novels depend on coincidence to tie up the ends neatly. A cross-over book like William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms, for example, plays with coincidence in an overt manner; it asks us to think about coincidence. Coincidence is also extraordinarily important in The One From The Other, but it is handled so subtlety that it is only towards the close to the book that its significance becomes obvious. Anyway, I mustn't rave on, but these books are extraordinarily well-researched and written. I'm still getting over "preemptive triage" as a euphemism for euthanasia. The sardonic voice of the narrator, the disillusioned detective with a conscience who hides his education under a tough guy façade, is spot-on:
Beneath all this decorative nonsense was an inscription. It read 'Sero sed serio', which was Latin for 'We're richer than you are'.
Amusingly, this is the motto of the Kerr family ("Late, but in earnest") - completely appropriate for someone who leaves a series untouched for fifteen years, then turns in a Meisterwerk.

Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary   A Woman in Berlin

I read The One From The Other between two historical accounts of Berlin at the end of World War II - Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary by Traudl Junge (with Melissa Müller) and the shocking, anonymous A Woman in Berlin. Kerr's grasp of the period is so good that he segues in between these 'real' histories almost seamlessly:
I beckoned the waiter towards me. He had Hindenburg's moustache, Hitler's blue eyes, and Adenauer's personality. It was like being served by fifty years of German history.
Typo! p.254 (you're for your).

Rating: 10/10.

If you liked this...: I enjoyed the first book in David Downing's WW2 series, Zoo Station (2007). Another more fluffy, but very well written and enjoyable post-war Berlin detective story is M. M. Kaye's Death in Berlin (1955).

Zoo Station  Death in Berlin

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