Every now and then I read a crime novel that makes me feel grumpy, usually because of the poor quality of the writing, plotting or characterisation. Normally I don’t blog those kinds of reading experiences, and just move swiftly on to something more worthwhile. This post is going to be an exception to that rule, and concerns a once great series that has gone seriously off the rails.
A bit of a rant follows… You have been warned.
When I first discovered Philip Kerr’s ‘Berlin Noir’ trilogy in the 1990s, like many other readers I was in seventh heaven. March Violets (1989), The Pale Criminal (1990) and A German Requiem (1991) were the best crime novels I’d read in a long time, a sublime marriage of historical crime fiction and hard-boiled noir. They were also the best I’d seen set in the Nazi and Alled Occupation periods, providing a nuanced portrait of everyday life under Hitler, during the war, and in the turbulent period immediately following defeat. Collectively, they provided readers with a detailed insight into Nazi ideology and its imple-mentation, grappled with weighty themes such as guilt, justice and accountability, and examined the moral difficulties of occupying an ‘insider/outsider’ status within the regime through the figure of P.I. and sometime policeman Bernie Gunther. I’m still nostalgic for those early reading experiences (an entire holiday spent sneaking off from my beloved family to hoover up a few more chapters in delicious solitude).
After this first trilogy of Bernie Gunther novels there was considerable radio silence, and most of us assumed that the series was complete. Then, fifteen years later in 2006, another installment was published, which was swiftly followed by another three works. Each of these I purchased and read with varying degrees of pleasure, until I reached Field Grey (Quercus 2010), when a suspicion simmering at the back of my mind finally became impossible to ignore.
My suspicion was this: that Philip Kerr had intended to end the Bernie Gunther series with the third novel, A German Requiem, and that when he decided to resurrect the series fifteen years later, he made the strategic decision to take the story not just forwards but also backwards in time: forwards into the post-war era, and back to before March Violets and to other portions of the Nazi era not covered in the first three books. To put it even more bluntly: Kerr realised that he had not exploited the success of the Gunther series sufficiently, and decided to have another bite of the cherry, along the lines of George Lucas and his Star Wars prequels.
This is what we see when we compare the basic details of the first three novels with those that follow:
March Violets 1936 Nazi Germany
The Pale Criminal 1938 Nazi Germany
A German Requiem 1947 Occupied Germany and Austria
The One from the Other 1937 Berlin / 1949 Munich
A Quiet Flame 1950 Buenos Aires / 1932 Berlin
If the Dead Rise Not 1936 Berlin / 1954 Havana
Field Grey 1954 Cuba, New York, Germany / 1941 Minsk /
1931 / 1940 Germany / 1940 France / 1946 Russia, Germany
So the first three novels are straightforwardly chronological (1936-1947). The remainder continue to move forward in time, but zig-zag between the post-war ‘present’ and the Weimar, Nazi or immediate post-war pasts, and between Germany, Latin America and other nations involved in World War II. In other words, books 4-7 all have structures that allow the author to dip in and out of Bernie’s previous back-story and German/ wartime history at will, and to ‘open up’ as yet unexplored and lucrative literary territory. I’m prepared to bet that if Kerr had planned a seven novel series from the start he would have written it differently, probably governed by a more conventional chronological structure. And I reckon the novels would have held together much better as a totality if he had.
One could argue that the complex temporal structure of the later books make for a more interesting read, but in the case of Field Grey, which traces Bernie’s relationship with Erich Mielke (future big cheese in the GDR Stasi) from 1931 to 1954, this approach is tested to the limit. Furthermore, the arc of their twenty-year relationship doesn’t provide a strong enough framework to sustain the novel: while there are interesting observations about post-war guilt and justice, there’s no real plot, just a series of loosely related misadventures on Gunther’s part. More seriously, the considerable amount of *new* information given about Gunther’s past has the effect of overwhelming the portrayal of the detective and his life-story from earlier works of the series. It seems particularly implausible that many of the major life events recounted in Field Grey are not referenced by Gunther in the books that have gone before. And there are some problematic disparities, such as those arising from Gunther’s differing accounts of his tranfer from Minsk in A German Requiem (Berlin Noir, Penguin: 1993, pp.592-3) and in Field Grey (pp. 89-90).
In sum, my grumpiness on finishing Field Grey appears to have had two primary causes: firstly, the unfolding of a shaggy dog story in place of a decent plot, and, secondly, the manner in which this and the other ‘later’ novels interfere with Gunther’s characterisation and the beautifully rounded entity that is the ‘Berlin Noir’ trilogy. I can’t help feeling that it would have been wiser for Kerr to have left well alone (from an aesthetic if not from a commercial point of view).
I see that there is another Bernie Gunther novel coming out in October 2011 entitled Prague Fatale. I can only hope that the title indicates what I think it does, and that Bernie is given the dignified exit he deserves.
Rant over. Thanks if you made it this far 😉
Update: Since this post, Philip Kerr has published a ninth Gunther novel entitled A Man without Breath (Quercus 2013).
I look more closely (and without ranting) at the role of Bernie Gunther in a journal article published in Comparative Literature Studies (June 2013): ‘The “Nazi Detective” as Provider of Justice in Post-1990 British and German Crime Fiction: Philip Kerr’s The Pale Criminal, Robert Harris’s Fatherland, and Richard Birkefeld and Göran Hachmeister’s Wer übrig bleibt, hat recht’.