Crime novels that make you want to rant: Philip Kerr’s Field Grey (Bernie Gunther series #7)

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’.


76 thoughts on “Crime novels that make you want to rant: Philip Kerr’s Field Grey (Bernie Gunther series #7)

  1. Very interesting post. I have not read these, as I don’t tend to read historical fiction (unless it was written in the period), but I’ve read a lot of reviews and articles about them. I agree that it is very annoying when one has read a series and thought it finished, then the author returns to it and adds-on more books that one feels are not improvements. (I suppose Arthur Conan Doyle did something along these lines after Sherlock Holmes died 😉 ). I’m trying to think of other examples of what you describe in your post, as I know this has happened to me before, but I can’t recall any just at the moment, apart from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation “trilogy” (SF) which I enjoyed (aged about 15!) and then much later he or one of his ghostwriters began to add more to the series- I read one but thought it terrible as it had to change so much of the logic and stretch many points.

    • It’s the first time it’s happened to me (and I do feel faintly disloyal as I’ve been a paid-up Bernie fan for so many years). It would be very interesting to find out what other instances there are of this kind – interesting point about Conan Doyle! All in all, a really tricky dilemma for authors who obviously need to make a living in a highly competitive market. Perhaps the moral of the story is to be ambitious and plan a long series from the outset.

  2. I can empathise with you feeling disloyal as a long-term fan. I felt that way when I encountered the first Sara Paretsky/VI Warshawski novel that I didn’t like because it went way too far with the preaching a political agenda thing. I had been a die-hard fan until then (though after a couple of duds I have to say I think they’re back on form).

    As for Bernie I never saw the charm, though haven’t read the original trilogy and you’ve tempted me. The only one I read was the much-lauded If the Dead Rise Not and I was underwhelmed, though I did enjoy the character of Bernie but not enough to read later books. Might see if I can track down the trilogy though after your comments.

    • The trilogy felt very ground-breaking for the late 80s / early 90s and I has stood the test of time pretty well in my view. The novels are not absolutely perfect (I’m never sure whether having major historical figures appear as characters is a great idea), but Kerr evokes everyday life under the Nazi dictatorship extremely well.

  3. Thanks for this post Mrs P, very interesting for me as I never got round to reading the Kerr series when the first trilogy came out and was recently thinking of taking the plunge.

    I think what you’re describing is the problem I personally find with any long cycle of novels which get increasingly convoluted as the stories get spun out further and further and the law of diminishing returns kicks in ever more. The example that mainly spring to mind is the Bernie Samson series by Len Deighton which began with BERLIN GAME, which to me is probably his best book and which was extended fairly successfully with MEXICO SET and LONDON MATCH – he then wrote two further trilogies and a historical prequel with the plot eventually folding back on itself not once but twice. I never lost patience with it in the way that I think you clearly have with the Kerr series and think that on the whole it was a valid experiment on Deighton’s part (and an amazing thing to do at the end of an already long career, topping it off with a ten novel series), but it was a close thing and I think a lot of readers were eventually left exhausted and pretty dissattisifed. The dangers in doing it – of obliterating the affection for the initial trilogy by having to tortuously find new ways the move the same chess pieces – are probably very hard to avoid.

    I am not, in the main, I should add, a fan of that ‘trilogy in 8 parts’ (sic) syndrome that is so common now, especially in fantasy, though I know that many readers love that as an approach, so I’m probably temperamentall inclined to take your view anyway! Great post – thanks again.

    • Thanks Cavershamragu – yes, having to continually find new ways to move the same chess pieces – that’s exactly it. Very interested in your comments on the Deighton series. Had eyed up Berlin Game, but didn’t realise it was the first in such an extensive series. Will check it out.

  4. J K Rowling did it so well, I think – not only in terms of planned plot over 7 books but in the way she made the books “grow up” with the reader.

    • Thanks, Maxine. Yes – agree with you that Rowling got it right – and in a crime context the Swedes seem to be particularly good: thinking here of Sjowall and Wahloo’s Martin Beck series and Mankell, of course, with Wallander. I suppose one thing I should concede is that Kerr is trying to pull off something inherently complex by choosing to illuminate a very difficult and complex historical period through his series. Not the easiest of tasks.

  5. Pingback: Petrona’s choice from the Internet – 30 April | Petrona

  6. As a Yank history buff, I continue to marvel at British fiction and nonfiction depicting the violent 20th century. I like Kerr, but agree that the Berlin Noir stories are his best. Dark Berlin is well portrayed by Jonathan Rabb and David Downing, whose style is similar to Kerr’s. The best American thriller writers are Olen Steinhauer, Alan Furst and Robert Littell. England’s Charles Cumming is the best successor to le Carre.

  7. Pingback: » Crime novels that make you want to rant: Philip Kerr’s Field Grey (Bernie Gunther series #7) » Books about the world

  8. Bernie is a breath of fresh air, no matter the time depicted. He is the ultimate survivor. I have met a couple of those fellows, and I never cease to marvel at their ability to persevere. The critics of Kerr for his methodology are the type who argue which vintage is best, Krug ’89 or Dom ’57. Doesn’t matter. Relax and enjoy the characters and the style. A good book is one you enjoy. That’s it, nothing more. Like the old university prof question concerning the motive of a literary character doing what he did. The character does what he did because the author bade him do so. When I find a stand that sells a great currywurst, I frequent the place until it ceases to produce to my satisfaction. I then move on..The critic should do the same and leave one’s appreciation of Bernie versus Heydrich or Himmler or any other of the ultimate monsters and the ability of our hero(?) to slip away to survive another day.

    • Very nice appreciation, which I completely share. The research that goes into every single tableau is astounding, and I love reading the novels just for that; the comparison of champagnes might be something Bernie himself would indulge in!

  9. Pingback: Double celebration…and wishing you a Happy 2012! | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

  10. Hi, I’m nearly finished with Prague Fatale. I’ve enjoyed it, but like you I started having doubts with Field Grey. I enjoy the character of Gunther and the moral complexity enough to give Kerr some slack, but the historical ziz-zagging does need to be overlooked. I had a bigger problem with Field Grey – the clunking nature of the modern references (Guantanamo, US complicity). The strength of the Gunther novels is that you’re left wondering how you would remain good – by revealing how messy morals are. But in Field Grey I began to feel a pretty unsubtle point was being made.

    • Thanks for your comment, Matthew. I’m interested to hear that you liked Prague Fatale more than Field Grey. I have to confess that I still haven’t read Prague Fatale, even though I’ve heard positive things about it. I think it’s the Agatha Christie country-house element that puts me off – this just seems to be at odds with the grim historical moment in which the novel is set. I think I’ll have to bite the bullet soon though and give it a go.

      I agree with you that Gunther is a very interesting creation, and has been used to explore some tough moral questions very effectively. I like authors who take on the challenge of a portraying a detective or policeman in a repressive state. But I’m not quite sure it always comes off…

  11. Having just finished Prague Fatale and being in the process of recommending Philip Kerr to an American friend, I now feel slightly short-changed that I have never encountered the Berlin Noir series (I will of course seek the books out – today!), and rather doubtful about my appreciation of literature having thoroughly enjoyed everything of his I have read starting at the One From The Other, unlike so many of your commentators who seem to feel that something is lacking in these latter books.

    Maybe the secret is to tackle it the way I have, to immerse yourself in the later series, then when you are hooked, to go back to the beginning.

    Whatever, I am still delighted to have found Bernie Gunther, and despite other peoples’ misgivings about the chronology and depth of Kerr’s work, I find his style of writing stimulating, and that is enough for me.

    • Thanks, Philippa, and don’t take any notice of my grumpy rants! I’m glad that you enjoyed the later Kerrs, and would thoroughly recommend trying out the Berlin Noir trilogy.

      The question of what order you read the books in is an interesting one – I think you’re right that it could make a difference. But then again, I also know of some readers who started from the very beginning and have loved all of them 🙂

      I still haven’t read Prague Fatale. Must do better!

  12. I must agree with certain of the criticisms leveled at Mr Kerr in that the switching back and forth in time did make my brain ache a little, but let’s face it, this writer certainly captured my imagination and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading all the Bernie Gunther books. Well done Mr Kerr I say.

  13. I agree with Mrs Peabody in part. The books should have ended some time ago for sure, but with A Quiet Flame and not quite as soon as A German Requiem. However the most recent outing is very poor (A Man Without Breath), and it is now getting to the stage I can honestly believe that Philip Kerr might place Bernie at the scene of Hitler’s suicide – why not, as Bernie is fast becoming attached to every key aspect of WW2. I miss it when he was a P.I or at the Alex, his time in the SS just feels convoluted.

    • Thanks for your comment, James. I haven’t yet read the later ones so can’t comment on those, but even with the earlier ones felt slightly uncomfortable about the inclusion of prominent Nazi figures and Gunther’s interactions with them.

      I think there were a couple of reasons for this: credibility (I don’t think a wise-cracking detective would have lasted long in that company) and, for want of a better word, appropriateness. My worry is that the novels are capitalising on a macabre fascination with these figures and have often felt slightly uncomfortable reading those sections (possibly because I have in-depth knowledge of that very bleak historical period via my work as an academic).

      For information, I’ve just published an article that includes analysis of the second Gunther novel, The Pale Criminal:

  14. I have just finished, literally about an hour ago, the Berlin Noir trilogy. I picked it up in Waterstones thinking it looked interesting and within a few pages I was hooked. I had hoped that the other books would be as good, but the critiscm actual or implied of mr Kerrs later works, have put me slightly off. I shall try the fourth book and I hope I like it; i agree with bobbys definition of a good book, if the reader enjoys it then its a good book. I too have never been one to delve too faar into motivation of characters except in that they push the plot along. One thing that hit me just as I finished the third book, Linden is Lime in german and the the film going on in the background, the Third Man, a story about the death of a Harry Lime. Why did it take me so long!! Perhaps I am not clever enough to fully apreciate Bernie!

    • The Berlin Noir trilogy remains one of my absolute top selections, and I’m so glad that you enjoyed it. Do keep reading – I’ll be really interested to see what you think of Bernie’s development as you move on in the series.

      Do you know, I’d never picked up on the Harry Lime connection, so thanks for that! Now that you say it, it seems like an obvious – and perfect – one to make, given the post-war Viennese setting. How clever of Mr. Kerr – and of you to spot it!

  15. I stumbled across your post (rant) as I was writing my Goodreads review of the most recent Bernie Gunther, and am grateful that you crystallized what has been annoying me with the recent installments of what I considered to be a great series. Wonder of course, why the Brits haven’t made it into a mini-series on TV.

    • Thanks for your comment, Nick. I had an interesting discussion with some TV producers a little while back in which we discussed the possibility of a Bernie Gunther series. The view was that it would still be a step too far for a British audience to identify with a German PI during the Nazi period (and my feeling is that the series is tying itself up in knots as far as Bernie’s role in relation to the regime is concerned).

      I’ve just read a very powerful (and pretty uncomfortable) hybrid crime novel by David Thomas called Ostland, which traces the personal journey and choices of a German policeman – not unlike Bernie – when he’s transferred to the Eastern front. It’s a brutally honest account of one man’s moral disintegration, and is very realistic and well-researched. Recommended if you have an interest in this historical period, but not for the faint-hearted.

      • Ostland is a stunning achievement. I read it shortly after reading The Kindly Ones, a great novel that failed, ultimately, because of the way the author made the protagonist some sort of massive deviant. The real horror of the Nazi era is the way that it took ordinary people and perverted them – people who in “normal” times would never have come close to performing the degraded acts they did. The way the main character has his resistance chipped away piece by piece is brilliantly told.

      • I totally agree with you, Steve. It’s a genuinely outstanding exploration of how ‘ordinary men’ became part of the machinery of the Holocaust.

  16. I came across a recommendation for the Bernie Gunther series of books on a discussion board last month. I’ve just finished the ninth and latest in the series and have to say I enjoyed them all. The moving from one period to another didn’t bother me as much as minor factual errors like troops moving north from Smolensk to Kursk in A Man Without Breath when in reality they’d be going south. You’ll really enjoy the books If you ignore the little things and treat them as escapism rather than in depth analyses of evil or a man walking a moral highwire. Some people tend to portray the Nazis as having been beamed in from the Planet Evil by people who cannot accept that ordinary people do evil things or those who want to present them as being separate from real Germans. Kerr’s books present an ordinary individual doing a routine job in a context that is unusual to us. All told I enjoyed the books and hope that Kerr gives us a few more.

    Tom Hanks incidentally is reportedly working on producing a series for HBO based on the books.

    • Hello Mick and thanks for your comment. Because I’m an academic in this area, I’m not going to be able to go down the escapist route… I do actually like the fact that Kerr presents us with an ‘ordinary German’ in the series, because it allows for a much more nuanced appreciation of the complexities of the time, and the difficult moral choices that had to be made (less black and white and more ‘grey on grey’ as historian Detlev Peukert puts it). My problem is more that some later novels in the series appear to have refigured Gunther’s role in key events, resulting in some internal contradictions. I’ve actually stopped reading the latest ones in the series, as I intend to go back to the beginning and read the whole lot through in one go, so that I can try to figure out what’s going on.

      You raise an interesting point: crime is primarily a genre associated with entertainment, and so perhaps we should not expect to much of it in terms of historical analysis. But then again, when a period of history is so sensitive, authors do need to take some care. And sometimes they can pull off a wonder – a novel that entertains and illuminates history in equal measure. Robert Harris’ Fatherland is one example that springs to mind – and that’s an alternative history…

    • I too have thought Berlin Noir at least worthy of a film or series. Has this come to fruition, is it a work in progress or has the notion been discarded? I’d be delighted to view it as an additional entertainment value to the books and refrain from being overly judgmental on inaccuracies in the making. One of my cats on my lap and an ice cold lager to enhance the experience and I suspect I would be a satisfied consumer.

  17. Hi Mrs P.,
    Greatly enjoyed your blog issue and am about to read the comparative lit piece, however I cannot restrain myself and have these few words to say.
    I am almost at the end of Mr. Kerr’s latest Bernie novel. It is the first one of Mr Kerr’s that falls in my hands, it is a present. I am known to my friends as a Rankin and Neville enthusiast, you see. Though at the beginning I was delighted by the atmosphere and the self flagellating humour of the hero, I now find myself in trouble, both emotionally and ideologically. There seems to be found in this book, according to my humble opinion, an overwhelming desire to pat the good german on the back and immerse the backward russian in the mud, not to speak of the soviet. Is there such a trend in writers of crime fiction, do they simply cater to their average reader’s preconceptions. Is there in progress a process of constructing the enemy …- rather deconstructing the old and constructing the new one…

    • Thanks very much for your comment, Vasssilis. Now that’s a really interesting question you raise, and I’m not quite sure of the answer. I would say that there has definitely been some focus on Soviet war-crimes in recent crime fiction, but I’m not sure that the pattern has been to depict ‘bad Russians/Soviets’ in place of ‘bad Germans’. I’ll look out for it now and will report back if I find anything interesting. Perhaps you could do the same?

      As to whether crime writers take the easy route and cater to their reader’s preconceptions: I’m sure that some do, but many don’t. Market considerations may shape the way that some writers approach such issues, but on the whole, they tend to do a great deal of research, and to try to deliver something that’s nuanced and accurate (like Stuart Neville, William Ryan and Robert Harris to name but three).

  18. I was stunned at how good The first three Gunther were. Fascinating period and Kerr handled it well. I welcomed Bernie’s return and have enjoyed all his exploits. The zig zagging in time does not bother me.

    • Hello Brent – I’m very glad you’ve enjoyed the series and wholeheartedly agree with you about the Berlin Noir trilogy. Those three books remain among my favourites and I still think that they were extremely groundbreaking for the time.

  19. Enjoyed your rant and find it difficult to argue against from a purist view. Some things I think many of the detractors here is missing is that though Kerr has striven for historical accuracy (and for a non-German not living through the Nazi period has done a good job of painting the pictures for us) we shouldn’t lose sight of the desire to entertain through the bare bones non fiction to create enjoyable fiction. This, for me, was achieved. I merely want to pick up a book absorb the truths and the nonsense of it and feel I don’t want the story to end or am impatient to download what follows. Kerr managed to prompt this with his efforts. Gunther is a far from perfect, fairly principled, moral, honest cop/ex-cop/borderline war criminal and Kerr has him blunderingh/tip-toeing through this minefield of moral bear traps with great wit, expertise and human frailties. Bernie is a flawed character in an even more flawed world at one of the most flawed eras of human history. No surprise then he does not come across as a saint. He is a fairly complex character who nevertheless wears his heart on his sleeve married to an inability to keep his mouth shut who on occasions does not read the way the wind is blowing as expertly as those who manipulate him. This is the way Kerr has manipulated the “Regular” average cop who through no great fault of his own puts himself/finds himself in completely irregular circumstances due to the very flaws Kerr has decided to inflict upon Gunther.
    A truly great character, enmeshed in entertaining plots, encompassing some of the most horrendous non-fictional incidents and personalities of that dark stain upon human history. And, I hope Kerr has another 9 such in his imagination and the time to pen them.

    • Hello John, thanks for your comment. I agree with lots of what you say. I loved Berlin Noir, and the use of the flawed private investigator figure in the historical context of Nazi and post-war Germany is a brilliant mechanism, precisely because it allows all those hazy moral areas to be acknowledged and explored. So I actually think that’s one of the series’ strengths, although there’s a risk of ending up in a moral tangle sometimes (e.g. if the author gets the reader to identify overly with the flawed PI who does dubious things). My reservations about the later novels in the series still remain, but there are now a number I haven’t read, so I’ll have to reserve judgement on those.

  20. Well, it’s finally happened. Although I was close with Field Grey, I finally abandoned the most recent Bernie Gunther (Lady from Zagreb) midway through. The first five books were great, but it’s been downhill since then and Bernie now enters self-parody. How much can one man have experienced during the war? Also, the time-line is all over the place, and the Marlowe pastiche is really dragging on. Bye Bernie – the only thing that will interest me now is a decent movie or tv series as the books have taken their course.

    • Oh dear. It’s such a shame when that happens, both in terms of the series and in terms of the reader’s relationship with the series. But I agree with you that there’s real potential in a film or TV adaptation. I’m quite surprised that no one has taken it on yet, although I can see that care would need to be taken given the historical period and its huge sensitivities.

      • With the growing popularity of the TV box set there may yet be a chance for someone to produce half a dozen BG series. I read and watch for entertainment unless there is a requirement for research. All I ask of Kerr and his ilk (Oh but I wish for the skill and wordsmithery to be able to produce it myself) is they entertain me and leave me wanting to read the next chapter/book or watch the next film/episode. I remember way back reading another set of books concerning an individual and his journey through the quagmire of national socialism, namely the story surrounding a young German gunner by HH Kirst. They entertained me at the time and I may well revisit that particular character as my memory of those books dims close to forgetfulness. Surely it’s all about entertainment unless it says differently in the blurb. I don’t understand the desire to pick up a book merely to pick holes in it. How did Shakespeare ever make it as a writer of anything if that was all he intended. With the intrigue he intended to entertain, hold in thrall, mesmerise with his words. Smile and grimace in the same sentence. IMHO Kerr manages that even in the yarns I enjoyed less than the ones I could not put down. My passage through life has put me in close contact with individuals just like those outlined by Kerr and I find it fascinating putting faces to those born of his imagination and his take on those who existed and are well documented.

        I would not wish to watch anything which took care given any historic period and would pour scorn on anything that attempted to negotiate sensitivities. How much more insensitive can the world be concerning the Nazi era than they were themselves to those unfortunate enough to fall under their administration or those tasked with putting the mess aright. It would need to be exactly as BG has been written – gritty, dark, sardonic, sarcastic, challenging and above all creating the correct picture of the period not some PC nonsense because Frau Schmidt of Baden Baden finds it all a little too distressing. That’s what the on/off switch or the return the book to the shelf is for. There was nothing more denigrating to the human race than the facts as they happened so let’s regurgitate it again and again in all its entirety and insensitivities in the, perhaps vain, hope we learn something. Sorry to have taken so much of your time.

      • Hello John – apologies for the delay in responding and thanks for your comment. I think we’ll just have to agree to differ on the issue of historical sensitivities. But interesting that you should mention Kirst’s series – I’m a big fan of The Night of the Generals and love the satirical humour Kirst uses to skewer the army generals who were Nazi fanatics or went along with the regime for personal ends. And there’s another set of novels that may interest you, mentioned by Penny below – the author is Volker Kutscher and the first in his ‘Gereon Rath’ series, which is set in the Weimar period, is out with Sandstone Press soon. The first novel is called Babylon Berlin and there’s a link here:

  21. Pingback: Roberto Costantini’s Italian/Libyan Balistreri Trilogy | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

  22. Interesting post. I’m typically a very fussy reader, always trying to find the next Le Carre and have generally found it with Alan Furst. But then Mr Furst has, with his last 2 novels, done what you are suggesting Mr Kerr has done, in the sense that he seems to now be writing for a more mainstream audience – perhaps hunting for a movie deal. His romance has dialed up, for example, and the plot resolutions tied up too neatly.

    On Kerr, I struggled at first, being a Chandler (and Hammett and Ross Macdonald) fan, with the “Marlowe pastiche” as someone mentioned above, but have grown to enjoy it – as a staff officer ponders in “A Man With No Breath”, it’s a wonder he gets away with his insubordination. Sometimes I find it a bit much until I relax and stop taking myself so seriously! Especially as the device is so wel executed: Kerr’s narrative is top class.

    On the matter of Gunther now appearing everywhere; I have no problem whatsoever: anyone who has read George Macdonald Fraser’s brilliant Flashman series or Patrick O’Brian’s even better (if that’s possible) Aubrey/Maturin Napoleonic naval warfare novels (if not, please do!) will accept the device: in Flashman’s case it’s comically – in more ways than one – that he was centrally involved in all the great military events throughout the mid to late 19th century, and in Captain Aubrey’s case it would be impossible for one frigate captain to have seen so much action. It doesn’t matter: if the characters are well developed and the writing is sublime, why complain?

    So with Kerr, I think the formula holds and as long as he maintains a high standard of writing (albeit formulaic) I will continue to enjoy them. I’d be happy to see him in the bunker even!

    I also strongly recommend Olen Steinauer, Charles Cumming, David Downing
    And Robert Harris (not to mention the genre’s pioneers Eric Ambler and Graham Green) although I don’t think RobertLittel Charles McCarry or Joseph Kanon are of the same standard.

    • Hello Ralph, and thanks very much for your comment. I totally agree with you about the importance of the quality of the writing and narrative. As for the rest, a little suspension of disbelief will go a long way! The author probably also counts on his/her audience reading the novels as reasonable intervals, as opposed to all of them in one go, which helps to mitigate the volume of encounters with historical figures.

      An interesting parallel situation: I started watching Deutschland 83 last week, a Channel 4/Walter Presents spy series set in the last decade of the East/West German division. I thoroughly enjoyed it, thought it had some interesting observations to make, and was able to overlook some rather implausible bits, unlike a historian colleague of mine who is an expert in the period – he declared it to be ‘baloney’! When I pressed him on this, he said that he knew too much about the realities of the GDR and the ways in which the Stasi operated to take the narrative’s central premise seriously. Fair enough – sometimes certain viewers simply won’t be able to make the necessary leap – and I think that’s where I am as a reader with the later Bernie Gunthers.

      Thanks also for your other recommendations. I’m listening to le Carre’s Little Drummer Girl on audiobook at the moment and am enjoying his consummate storytelling skills very much.

  23. Kerr and Gunther are excellent, have read them all and have no issues with the later books at all; ‘Field Grey’ being one of his very best. But having searched your very nice site, I am surprised – given your criticism of Gunther – that you appear not to have heard of Italian academic Ben Pastor’s Wehrmacht detective Martin Bora – a far more earnest anti-hero than Gunther and the war-time settings more ‘genuine’. Bora even organises round-ups of Jews in the later books. Part thriller mystery, part crime novel. Try ‘Lumen’ where Bora is tasked with solving the murder of a famous Polish nun in Cracow after the invasion of Poland in late 1939..

    • Thanks for your comment, myrockandmetal. Pastor’s ‘Bora’ series is on my radar – I’ve read the first couple and am keen to read more. As you say, Bora is a very interesting protagonist whose actions demand serious moral scrutiny. I’ve not covered Pastor’s work as yet on the blog, but have discussed it in general terms in an academic journal article I wrote on the the figure of the ‘Nazi detective’ (2013). There’s a link to article with a brief introductory section here (the rest is behind a paywall, unfortunately):

      • yes I evidently didn’t search hard enough. I find Pastor’s writing quite ‘haunting’ – she has that gift of alluding to rather more than is exactly spelled out, especially with regard to Bora and his motivations, understanding the necessity to kill but being repulsed by murder. This works brilliantly but mostly ‘after the event’. I find myself thinking about her books long after having put them down..

      • Not at all – a reasonable assumption. Unfortunately there’s not enough time/space on the blog to cover everything I’d like (and I try to keep a balance between the German/German-themed material and international crime fiction/TV).

        That you’re still thinking about the books after you’ve finished them is a very good sign. Works that raise bigger questions and leave them open for the reader to ponder, rather than supplying complete closure, tend to be the ones I like the best. What you say about her writing style is interesting too – will bear that in mind when I read on.

  24. You need to try Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath series – starts with Nasse Fische. Some chance of a tv series here.

    • Funnily enough, Penny, I’ve just read Der nasse Fisch, which is going to be published with Sandstone Press soon under the title Babylon Berlin. Liked it very much! And Tom Tykwer is directing the TV series?

  25. His latest ‘The other side of silence ‘ is another strong story – Gunther gets tangled up in a Burgess/MacLean 50s Cold War spy thriller ..and we learn more about his life in early 1945 Koenigsberg and the disaster of the Wilhelm Gustloff

    • Thanks, Neil – interesting to see that there continues to be a dual focus on two different time periods (that seems to be a key feature of the series).

  26. Mrs Peabody, I’ve been playing around with events that occurred in Paraguay which seem to connect with Bernie’s Cuban episode in the sense he talks about the CIA trying to keep the communists out of Argentina. As you’re a scholar in these historical matters I wonder if you can help me out. The CIA was active all over that area in those post-war times and specifically in Paraguay the US were helping Stroesser to build up a police state by training his forces. What US department would be doing the actual training? The Defense Department? Or some sort of Black Ops? I’m completely ignorant about military matters and so I’m confused by some allegedly real events I’ve come across elsewhere: at the same time that one part of the government was helping Stroesser, the CIA was supposedly investigating the murder of a CIA operative in a cinema. But this murder investigation may have been trumped to excuse the CIA presence in Paraguay. There’s the suggestion that the CIA was really snooping on whatever group was preparing Stroesser’s future death squads. If so, why would they have to snoop and prevaricate? Incidentally, if I wanted to find out whether a cinema murder took place and follow that up how could I proceed? (It’s not essential except in terms of my own understanding). I’m struggling with a confluence of coincidental events that allegedly took place in Assunta in the 1950s to see if it might add up to a screenplay. I have Bernie to thank for reminding me that communism was the bugaboo worrying the CIA and the State Department at that time (as now), I haven’t read my notes in several years so I’m writing off the cuff because I’ve happened onto your site – while still reading If The Dead Rise Not – and it’s triggered my imagination, so thank you very much for your thoughtful comments and those of your followers.

    • Hello Elisabeth – what interesting questions you’re grappling with! I’m afraid that I can’t be much help in answering them specifically, as my expertise is linked more directly to Germany/European events, but it might be worth seeing what you can turn up by searching in Google Scholar. For example:

      I see that there are also declassified CIA documents that can be accessed online (!):

      The main problem of course, is finding reliable sources to corroborate covert government actions. Sometimes the truth is buried so deeply under layers of secrecy and disinformation that it’s impossible to access it properly. Historical novels like Kerr’s presumably contain a factual framework overlaid with literary elements – so care needs to be taken there too…

      Best wishes with your historical sleuthing and do let me know how you get on!

      • Thank you Mrs. Peabody for your reply. What you say is very very interesting. I’ll bear these sources in mind. At the moment I am playing (very occasionally as I don’t have anybody to collaborate with or talk to about the subject) with a fictional idea. I read that certain things were happening in Paraguay at a particular date in an upmarket hotel and the events were so extraordinary – that people who were enemies should have found themselves clustered together – that I wanted to play a possible scenario of what was going on. For example: famous Nazi war criminals and the Israeli ambassador to Paraguay might be in adjacent dining rooms. The Nazis carousing while recalling the good old days of executing Jews; the ambassador under orders not upset the Stroesser regime because it supported Israel in the UN. Mengeles was living nearby as were two ladies who recognised him from the camp. And, as I mentioned before. some arm of US military was helping Stroesser with his police state while the CIA (or FBI? – it’s a long time since I’ve reviewed the material) was snooping on the military – but allegedly was hunting for the killer of their murdered op. Plus some sort of conference was taking place and the representatives from East and West Germany, France et.a. were staying at the hotel Guarani. It struck me as the blackest of black comedies, very much in keeping with ‘realpoltics.’ I had hoped to find a scriptwriter or producer (I was a story editor) but I seem to have struck out. The moment isn’t right.

      • Hello Elisabeth – sorry for not responding sooner (I’ve been away).

        That’s a set of quite extraordinary scenarios you describe, but I can believe that they might well have taken place. Reality is often so much stranger than fiction or than we could ever imagine. Quite wonderful material to work with and I hope that the timing is right at some point in the not-too-distant future.

      • Also, never underestimate the ability of parallel government departments to undermine and/or torpedo each others’ efforts! For example, the 9/11 airline hijack attacks could probably have been prevented if US surveillance agencies had shared their findings … and in Russia the military and political secret service agencies have never seen eye to eye. In Nazi Germany, Admiral Canaris’ Wehrmacht Abwehr outfit often paralleled investigations undertaken by, and occasionally even worked to circumvent or neutralise the work of, the RSHA’s Ausland-SD under Schellenberg and the GeStaPo under Mueller. So different US agents may well have been following different (and possibly counterproductive) agendas …

  27. I have enjoyed all the Gunther novels having read them in the order of publication. I am sure you are right that if he was starting again he would not do the series this way, though he may still have chosen to start at the same point in time as it is perhaps the most interesting. I have not been overly irritated by the chronological shifts which are interesting. But one perhaps small detail I have found very irritating which is that in the One from the Other, he loses his finger. If the absence of his finger has ever been mentioned since, I have missed it – I struggle to believe that someone can suffer a disfigurement like that and never mention it again – there have been 7 books since then and 6 of them are set (in part at least) after the disfigurement. Surely one of his girlfriends for example might have noticed it and asked him about it? I can understand why the earlier novels set after book 4 but written before it don’t mention it (that goes to your gripe about retrospective characterisation) but not why none of the later ones mention it! Irritating but does not spoil the enjoyment.

    • Hello Charles – that’s such an interesting comment. It goes to show how important small narrative details can be and the importance of following through (though I do pity the author having to hold that mass of detail in his/her head for the duration of a long series…).

      There’s also a crime novel waiting to be written here: The Case of the Missing Finger (apologies, couldn’t resist).

      • Quite! Incidentally, for an excellent crime series with a proper narrative curve, fully rounded characters and an exploration of the clash between old underworld and new money, I heartily recommend the DI Faraday series written by Graham Hurley which ran for 10 or 11 excellent novels and has now entered spinoff territory with one of the minor characters taking over after a relocation from Portsmouth to the west Country. Though I should add that I have yet to find anyone who comes remotely close to the legend in police procedural fiction that is the one and only, sadly departed Ed McBain.whose 87th Precinct series running over decades was utterly brilliant and I think ground-breaking.

      • Thanks for this recommendation, Charles. I have to confess I don’t know the Hurley series, so will have to check it out.

        In total agreement with you about the Ed McBain 87th Precinct series. I’m still working my way through these novels, and they seem to stand up incredibly well.

  28. I read the Berlin trilogy several years ago and it was a sad and terrifically good series. I have read almost all his novels because I enjoy that period, and I agree that while some are good, they do not measure up to the first three. But the one I profoundly disliked was “The One From the Other” in which it appeared to me there was no moral compass.

  29. Have read them all and enjoyed Mr Kerr’s grammar and vocabulary. All read on Kindle and still a bit confused as to whether or not they are expurgated. I want to know what happened to wife Kirstin!

  30. I have red all the books with the exception of the last, METROPOLIS, which was published after Kerr’s death last year. I would agree that (1) some are definitely below par, and (2) the timeline jumps are confusing and even annoying at times. However commercial considerations clearly came into play, and most authors of long series cannot sustain the initially superb achievement. As a bit of a nitpicker I was saddened at avoidable anachronisms such as mention of the Russian sail training ship Kruzenshtern in 1943 (which was the German barque Padua until 1945) and of the Clayallee in Berlin in the 1930s (commemorating General Lucius Clay who was head of OMGUS during the 1948 Berlin Air Lift) – these should have been picked up by any competent subeditor.

    What I want to know now is whether Kerr’s death means the end of the Bernie Gunther tales – or will someone pick up the slack, just as James Bond has been revived by Kingsley Amis (writing as Robert Markham), Raymond Benson, Jeffrey Deaver, John Gardner, William Boyd and Sebastian Faulks. There are plenty of lacunae to explore in the BG timeline … and I must admit I did enjoy seeing him pop up a la Zelig at many of the murky moments of 20th century history.

  31. Gotta say, I disagree. I’ve read them all, and I love the whole series. I think Bernie Gunther is one of the best creations in hardboiled fiction, and my opinion is the more of him that’s out there in the world the better. We can quibble about whether the later books match up to the earlier (to me it reminds me of fans of a band complaining about how they “sold out” or changed over time), but there isn’t one of the Bernie books that hasn’t brought me and a lot of others great joy. There are very few authors I can say that about. Now that Kerr is no longer with us, I only wish he’d been able to give us more of his creation.

Please leave your comment here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.