British author Philip Kerr introduced his series character, World War II-era Berlin private eye Bernie Gunther, in March Violets (1989). He wrote two sequels over the next couple of years (The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem), but then abruptly discontinued the series, instead producing a succession of standalone thrillers.
Read our reviews of more Philip Kerr books.
But in 2006 Gunther reappeared in The One from the Other, set in 1949. It was followed by the brilliantly told, Buenos Aires-set A Quiet Flame and then If the Dead Rise Not, which won the 2009 Ellis Peters Historical Award. The new seventh Gunther yarn, Field Gray, finds our “hero” being captured off Cuba in the mid-1950s and coerced by French Intelligence to help nab a war criminal.
What’s the source of your interest in Berlin and World War II? And how well acquainted have you become with Berlin?
Over the years I’ve become very well-acquainted with Berlin, which is perhaps the most protean and symbolic of all 20th-century cities. This partly accounts for my interest. In the space of just 45 years there are parts of Berlin that went from being militantly Prussian, to being wildly decadent and liberal, to being Nazi, to being hard-line communist.
I first went there in the early 1980s when it was very different. Berlin is like that. Just as you get to know it, the place changes. Prior to that my interest was as a jurist—I did a postgraduate degree in German legal philosophy, which was really just an excuse to read German philosophy proper. Poor fool that I am, I once considered an academic legal career. But novels won out. And let’s face it, if you’re going to pick a subject you can’t do better. The Nazi Revolution is, in my opinion, the most important historical event since the Protestant Reformation, which also started in Germany. By the way, Hitler and Luther have much in common; not just their violent anti-Semitism but a lot of other things too. Discuss.
Your books appear to be extremely well-researched. Why is it so important to get the details right?
I don’t know that it’s so important, but I try for the sake of extra verisimilitude. I don’t like to cheat. I rarely make things up. But imagination counts most of all. I find that the more detail I have to hand the more I am able to complete the method-acting trick of projecting myself into that past. I think of myself as being a little like Georges Seurat, applying little points of color on a large canvas. Up close the little dots mean nothing, but take a step or two back and you have Sunday in the Park with George. To tell the truth, that’s all any art is. A little bit of a trick of the light. My books aren’t meant to be anything other than impressions of what it might have been like. Not close snapshots of a moment in time.
Field Gray seems like a series departure. It’s less a novel about murders and their solving, and more about the notorious nuances of the war and Bernie Gunther’s association (albeit reluctant) with the Third Reich’s military force, the Waffen-SS. Were you merely hoping to shake up the Gunther series by exploring some of the atrocities Gunther has committed, or had you a more complicated agenda?
I like shaking up the series every time. I don’t like writing the same book again and again. I believe that it’s important to take risks, and to that end I like to challenge people’s expectations. I don’t know how long I can keep re-inventing things, though. And the minute I think I am repeating myself—which, after all, is the basis of so much modern publishing—I will drop Bernie and try something different. However, I did have an agenda with Field Gray and it is complicated. I wanted to make some modern political points as well as some historical ones. I will leave readers to work out what these might be. That’s the fun of reading, after all.
We see Gunther coming to terms here with the choices and mistakes he’s made in life, about his collusion with a corrupt society. But is he a better man for understanding his mistakes, or just a more cynical one for being OK with having made them?
I think any man is a better man for understanding his mistakes. For example, I think I am a better writer for having written several duds along the way. Failure is helpful and instructive. And, personally, I wouldn’t be without the odd failure to stand in the back of my chariot and remind me that I am but mortal, so to speak. The point of the character is that he is an Everyman figure designed to highlight the moral dilemmas that might have confronted any one of us in the situation he finds himself in, which is of his country run by a bunch of racist gangsters. That’s the question I am always asking myself in these books. What would I have done?
In The Dead Rise Not, you revealed that Gunther had a Jewish grandparent. How does his Jewish heritage affect him as a person, and influence the direction of your stories?
The point is that it doesn’t affect him personally, in that it is a matter of no real importance to Bernier Gunther. I, too, have a Jewish ancestor, I believe. But it doesn’t really affect the real me. What is of enormous consequence in the book is that the discovery will probably be of enormous importance to other people. To the Nazis. That was my point. Race ought to be irrelevant. It’s other people who arrive at the idea of race with preconceptions that make it a problem. I’m a Scot. But being a Scot is of absolutely no interest to me.
You insist you’re not writing crime novels, but instead political novels that masquerade as crime novels. How do you explain that distinction? Is it based on the fact that, no matter what crimes occur in the Gunther books, “the state” remains the biggest criminal of all?
I write within the tradition of the European political novel, yes. That’s what the novels are about. Politics and morals. It’s disingenuous of me, of course, to say they’re not crime novels when they are that, too. But I’m aiming a little higher here. I’m ambitious to do more, that’s all. I think it’s always fascinating to write about a boring little murder when there’s mass murder being planned or executed in the wings. Besides, I don’t care for being pigeonholed at all. All I mean is for the crime novel to achieve something more than just a conventional solution to a grubby crime. I’m not turning my nose up at crime. I just want to do more with it than just have some poor woman sliced open on an autopsy table.
How have German readers reacted to your Gunther novels?
Well, I don’t know about Germans. But Berliners seem to like them. But then Berliners are something else. I was in Berlin a few months ago and went into a bookshop and they had a Berlin [stories] table. My books were sandwiched between Christopher Isherwood and John le Carré. That was a moment for me. A real moment. I almost did a little dance of glee. Those guys are real heroes for me. John le Carré is, in my opinion, the best writer in English alive today. Long may he prosper.
Your eighth Bernie Gunther novel, The Man with the Iron Heart, is due out in Britain this coming October. It’s set in Prague more than a decade before Field Gray. What motivated you to leap backward in time again? And what can we expect of that next book?
I am afraid I cannot discuss the plot of this book except to say that it is no longer called The Man with the Iron Heart. It turned out that there was another book with that title. [My] book, half of which is set in Prague, is now called Prague Fatale…It’s set in October 1941. Think the Golem of Prague with Nazis.