© Alberto Estevez
For most novelists, the city where the action takes place is a backdrop or a stage set, nothing more than scenery. But the Berlin of Philip Kerr’s stories is a character in the books – a personality as complex and troubled as his private-investigator protagonist. ‘When I started writing I was after the character of the Berliner rather than the history of Berlin,’ says Kerr. ‘Berlin people have always been awkward-squad Germans, which is probably why I admire them. Hitler didn’t like them at all, and Berliners are the same now as then – they haven’t changed.’
Kerr wrote the first of the eleven Hitler-era thrillers in the 1980s. At that time, bringing Nazi-era Berlin to life was a feat of imagination as well as research, and a physical effort too. ‘I tramped the streets endlessly,’ he says. ‘This was before the Wall came down, when Berlin was probably the most atmospheric city on earth. I didn’t know that I was going to write a thriller, but the more I got into it the more I realised that I was being the detective; exploring the historical Berlin was like working on a case.’
The flesh-and-blood outworking of this literary investigation is Bernie Gunther. The first novel is set in 1936, three years into Nazi rule. Gunther is a jaded ex-cop, one victim of the purge of the Berlin police service that presaged the Nazi takeover. He is sharper than a Pickelhaube helmet, but his personality is as dark as the turbulent water of the River Spree and as damaged as the burned-out hulk of the Reichstag.
Gunther is, in other words, 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 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.’
Gunther’s task gets harder with each book in the series. As time moves on, he has to deal not just with the Nazi system, but with war and the postwar occupation by Soviet troops. His work eventually takes him out of the shattered German capital to Buenos Aires, Havana and elsewhere – but wherever he goes he is always a Berliner. ‘He has that black and brittle Berlin sense of humour that is also my sense of humour,’ says Kerr. ‘He is an outsider and a cynic, set against the world, and I have a lot of sympathy for him.’
Philip was interviewed by Jonathan Bastable for thisisabout.com