Natural born thriller: Philip Kerr interview
Dinners with De Niro and Tom Cruise are a far cry from the racial bullying Philip Kerr suffered at his Edinburgh school. But the writer has never been scared to think big, finds Aidan Smith
IF YOU like your writers to be not merely shy and retiring but unused to daylight and in need of a good meal, then you might enjoy hearing about Philip Kerr being kicked out of the Groucho Club. We're in the London showbiz watering-hole, in an upstairs room that Kerr thinks he's booked over lunch. But 10 minutes into our chat, and just as our successful author is explaining how he gets into the minds of Nazis, a waiter informs us we must leave. "This is a private room," says the waiter. But Kerr is raging. "I know what it is," he snaps. "I'm not an idiot."
Kerr is good at what he does – very good. Thrillers written: 14. Film rights sold: 14. That's not counting his four books for children which were snapped up by some bloke called Spiel... Spielman... no, Steven Spielberg. But not everyone applauds his work.
The mix-up is resolved, we return to our seats, and before Kerr gets back to his Nazis, he ponders the sometimes conflicting demands of audience and industry. "Publishers just want you to write the same book over and over again," he says. "But why would I want to do that? It would be like putting on a threadbare dressing-gown day after day."
So he writes different books. "Some sell better than others, some are better received and some get more flak," he adds. "But the biggest kickings I get are for making money."
It should be said that Kerr is not wearing a dressing-gown today, threadbare or otherwise. The collar and tie look expensive. There isn't a grey hair in his head nor a worry line on his face. And, as we've established, he can afford to hire suites in exclusive clubs. Why should he care what the critics and the cynics think?
"Martin Amis gets this," he continues. "He challenges himself, takes on big themes. But what some people really want is for him to re-write his first four novels."
Ah, Marty. Some years ago there was a magazine competition for unlikely book titles and the one everyone remembers is Martin Amis: My Struggle. Philip Kerr doesn't give the impression he's had to do much struggling in his life, but appearances – fine cloth, deep tan – can be deceptive.
For one thing, his swarthy complexion has always been with him (it's inherited from his mother) and during his Edinburgh schooldays was the cause of much taunting. "I got called 'Paki' and 'nigger' and was spat on," he says. But he went to a good school – Melville College. "Well, my nickname was Rastus – even the masters called me that. But it was more ignorance than prejudice. Let's just say it was character-forming."
The death of his father at just 47 was more than that. "It was a big shock and I felt the injustice of it. Religion was quite a thing in our house – we were Baptists. Some Sundays I went to church three times. If there was a talk on missionary work in the afternoon I could be there all bloody day. But religion took its first big knock after Dad died." So what does it mean to him now? "Absolutely nothing."
Kerr was 22 at this pivotal moment, the family having moved to England. When he went back to his Northampton grammar school recently to hand out the prizes, he urged pupils to seize the day. Kerr himself tried to kick on right away, but his twenties were a period of unmitigated failure. There were unproductive dabblings in advertising, law and accountancy. He was sacked more than once. And back then the book stats made dismal reading: five novels written ("They were sub-Martin Amis"); five unpublished. Then he tried crime, creating the Berlin private eye Bernie Gunther, and was up and running.
So: Nazis. Kerr, who's London-based, has just written his fifth Gunther yarn, A Quiet Flame, which finds our hero posing as a Nazi war criminal who escapes to Argentina where the murder of a young girl has gruesome similarities to his final (unsolved) case before Adolf Hitler came to power.
In Berlin, Kerr has Gunther break into Joseph Goebbels' house. The bathroom is pink, the towels are fluffy and there's a photo of Hitler next to the sink. In Argentina, Gunther encounters Adolf Eichmann hiding out in the country. Kerr imagines the architect of the Final Solution emerging from an outhouse, buttoning up his trousers, one side of his face normal, the other twisted – "it was like meeting Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at the same moment".
Kerr, who claims to have seen every Nazi documentary there's ever been, relishes the challenge of writing about "the banality of evil". A lot of crime fiction bores him because the crimes themselves are small-scale. He isn't scared of using the greatest crime of them all as a backdrop.
Kerr is story-driven and not so hung up on style but in the scheme of things that's no crime at all. He has a family to support and, although, at 52, he's successfully passed the age his father died, he worries about getting old.
Writing, he admits, makes him "curmudgeonly". On his website he confesses to having few friends. He's not a great traveller – the Argentina of A Quiet Flame is evoked from old photographs – and recently he had to be reprimanded by his wife for moaning about an expenses-paid invite to Barcelona.
But he has long since given up despairing of ever seeing his books complete the journey onto the big screen. To date, none has been filmed. "I just think, what an appalling waste of money," says Kerr, while fully aware that he's been the only beneficiary.
Hollywood's flirtation with Kerr has also provided him with plenty of movie-star lunch anecdotes ("Tom Cruise was Jerry Maguire – lots of grinning... Robert De Niro was exactly like he was in the diner scene in Heat – no eye contact, always looking over his shoulder, grabbing the table tight"). But these are old stories now and maybe it's about time Kerr turned his gaze from Hollywood to Holyrood.
Scotland has been the subject of one Kerr short story but that's all. "I should write about it more," he says, and he should. Several times today, he remarks on things being "very Scottish", "very Edinburgh" – even "very Corstorphine". Dark family secrets – his father only found out late in life that his "mother" was really his aunt – are not in short supply as inspiration. And he is who he is, despite his accent having gone – "a dour Scot, as my wife likes to remind me".
The creative juices first bubbled here. At 14, he packed the heels of his Chelsea boots with bits of wood to pass himself off as old enough for blue movies at the Jacey cinema in Princes Street. Then he wrote soft-porn and loaned the tales to friends – for a fee.
A sharp businessman, even then. v
A Quiet Flame (Quercus, 14.99) is published on March 17
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