Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Good Cop Nazi Cop

This interview originally ran in The Word in 2010, ahead of the publication of If the Dead Rise Not

“For a short period of time the German language was a series of very large German words, formed from very small German thinking.” Bernie Gunther says this the way he says everything; with a curled lip, a tone that dares you to disagree and the bitter regret that, though he was helpless to do much about it, he might’ve done a little more. His creator is rather more comfortable company, sipping tea in The Ivy’s private members’ club. A 53-year-old Scot with an RP accent and a complexion so deep-tan he could be Iberian (he attributes it to his Pict ancestry), Philip Kerr has built one of the most durable characters in modern crime fiction, a Marlowesque private detective thrown down streets far darker than those his forerunner trod.

Gunther’s beat is ‘30s Berlin. The Nazis have dumped Weimar into history’s dustbin, but the decadence forever associated with its name still lingers. Germany is in transition from one of the world’s most liberal states to its most tyrannical. A former homicide tec whose face doesn’t fit the new Nazi-dominated police force (KRIPO), Gunther’s kept busy by the never-ending wave of disappearing persons, many of them Jewish. “Whatever crime you’re detailing,” Kerr says, “you know there’s always something far worse going on in the background, the spectre of it. [The Holocaust]’s the great crime of the millennia, whereas a lot of crime writing seems a bit parochial.”

Gunther first appeared in 1989’s March Violets, soon followed by two more (the first three novels are still in print as the trilogy, Berlin Noir), then a gap of some 15 years, when he was revived for The One From The Other. “Crime writing is a bit like being on a treadmill, crime writers do cookie cutter novels, and I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t sign on just to write one sort of thing for the rest of my life. And I was lucky enough to be able to do that, now it would be impossible.” So Kerr ventured elsewhere, writing children’s books (as PB Kerr) and techno thrillers, sci-fi and historical counterfactuals. “I wanted to be like Kubrick, going from Strangelove to 2001 to Clockwork Orange,” he says. “A friend of mine called it fucking with your niche. I fucked with my niche.”

Gunther’s revival has seen him blossom. Always cynical and smart-mouthed, his misanthropy has developed a pronounced streak of self-loathing, fuelled by his wartime experiences as a reluctant SS member. Like Flashman, he has a habit of bumping up alongside any number of historical ogres, including all of the leading Nazis bar Hitler (“it’s good to have this ultimate monster in the background”) and the Perons. In the new novel, If The Dead Rise Not, he encounters Meyer Lansky and friends as they’re busily turning ‘50s Cuba into a Mafia colony.

But it’s the immediate predecessor, A Quiet Flame, which stirred most interest. While Peron’s welcome mat for escaping Nazis is a matter of historical record, Kerr adds a deal of conjecture, placing concentration camp architect Hans Kammler among them and speculating that Argentina may have had its own programme for Jewish extermination.

The novel aroused “horrified fascination” among Argentine journalists, but is based on a crime that was never committed. Or was it? “Others have speculated that they may have done. There were certainly camps for opponents of the regime, pre-Peron, during Peron, and during the ‘70s junta too. Argentina has always chucked the left in camps, and worse. I don’t think it’s too outrageous to speculate they might have done the same with Jews. Directive 11, forbidding Jewish immigration, was certainly true. The book didn’t go down well in Argentina. But look at the evidence – there were 8,000 Nazi war criminals in Argentina by the 1950s, so it seems perfectly reasonable to speculate on what they were doing, why they were there, who let them in, and if they were welcome, who wasn’t, and what happened to them?”

Gunther is now a globetrotter (The One From The Other explains why), but the stories always keep one foot in Berlin. Readers expect it and Kerr loves the place. He talks of his first visit to the Soviet East, just before the fall, with childlike excitement, his language peppered with the stuff of storytelling: “unbelievably exciting…bullet holes in every wall…fantastically atmospheric.” But he won’t freeze Gunther in time, insisting the character develops. He’s older now, not as imposing, less attractive, frequently paying for the sex that comes his way. “Too often heroines throw themselves at the character,” smiles Kerr. “It was fun this way, makes it worth doing. I’m not trying to inhabit the same pitch, I want to him to get older, greyer, so he can’t hack it like he used to.”

1 comment:

  1. This could be up my strasse. I'm enjoying a bit of crime fiction at the moment-light relief from all the heavy stuff, don't you know-and this sounds like an unworked patch of ground. Cheers for the tip, Steve.