Interview: Philip Kerr, author - ‘My shorthand for this novel is Downton Abbey, with SS’

Philip Kerr: 'Each time I start a Bernie Gunther novel, I ask myself if this could be the last one.' Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Philip Kerr: 'Each time I start a Bernie Gunther novel, I ask myself if this could be the last one.' Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Have your say

As his ‘Berlin Noir’ novels creep towards the Final Solution, Philip Kerr tells David Robinson how it feels to spend so much time with the Nazis

IN an elegant essay in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, Allan Massie looked at the relatively recent phenomenon of “Berlin Noir” – crime novels set in the German capital in the 12 years of the Third Reich. There are quite a few: a quartet by David Downing, a trilogy from Jonathan Rabb, and if you stretch the time limit only marginally, novels by Joseph Kanon (The Good German) and Rebecca Cantrell (A Trace of Smoke) amongst them.

But Berlin Noir, Massie pointed out, really began back in 1989, when Edinburgh-born author Philip Kerr first published March Violets and the world got its first glimpse of his private eye, Bernie Gunther. The novel was set in 1933. Hitler came to power in March that year (which is why all those hundreds of thousands suddenly leaping aboard the Nazi bandwagon were scornfully known as March violets). For those who didn’t want to join the party – Social Democrats like Bernie Gunther among them – life had just started to get a lot harder. Forced out of the police, he took up a job as house detective at Berlin’s Hotel Adlon.

The three Bernie Gunther novels Kerr wrote in quick succession were hugely successful. In hindsight, it’s easy to see why. Gunther is an attractively thrawn character, as determined to stand up for what is right as Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. In such morally murky times as the end of Weimar and the arrival of the Nazis (but before the start of the Second World War), he is the sort of person readers could kid themselves that they would have been too if they’d been around in that time and at that place.

Which leads straight on to the second point: the setting itself. A lot of historical fiction is bedevilled by the writer’s determination to shower the story with as much factual detail as possible. That’s like throwing ash on a fire: it kills it. There’s a place for the ash of detail, but it’s beside the story, or produced as a result of it. Kerr’s novels get that balance just right: enough detail to make the novels credible (that line about March violets, for example), but not enough to get in the way.

His reputation grew fast: in 1993 he was one of the Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists. Not wanting to be typecast by his Bernie Gunther novels, he moved away from them altogether, writing standalone thrillers and children’s books, whose film rights almost invariably seemed to be snapped up by Hollywood for frankly astonishing amounts considering that none of them have yet been made: 1995’s Gridiron, for example, netted him a cool $1 million.

But Bernie Gunther wouldn’t go away. The Berlin Trilogy had always sold well in the United States; other crime novelists’ Berlin Noir books (like The Good German, filmed by Steven Soderbergh in 2006) were also doing well. All of that being the case, wasn’t it time to bring back Bernie?

That happened in 2007 with The One from the Other. Both there and in A Quiet Flame (2008) and If The Dead Rise Not (2009), the action skipped from pre-war Berlin to following Bernie’s adventures in post-war Munich, Buenos Aires and Cuba. But in last year’s Field Grey, this avoidance of the dark genocidal heart of Nazi Germany finally ended: Bernie, we were told, had been horrified by the actions of the Einsatzgruppen he had witnessed on the Eastern Front, and had been complicit in the execution of a Soviet death squad. Now, in Prague Fatale, he moves even closer to the Final Solution. And what I want to ask Kerr essentially boils down to one question: If, as Adorno said, writing a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, can’t the same be said about writing a thriller about one of the main architects of the Final Solution?

We meet in an Edinburgh hotel on one of his relatively rare forays north to the land of his birth. He left to live in Northampton when he was 14 with apparently few regrets: at Edinburgh’s Stewart’s Melville College, he has said in other interviews, his dark complexion led to racist taunts. Although he doesn’t mention this to me, he clearly doesn’t cling onto his Scottish roots. “I wanted,” he says, “to write about Berlin in the way lots of other English writers had done, like Isherwood and le Carré.”

At that stage, he was in his mid-twenties, looking for a way out of a career in advertising. His early sub-Martin Amis attempts at novel-writing had all been relegated to the bottom drawer. But visiting Berlin, he had wondered what kind of place it was like in wartime. Back then, he couldn’t find any easily accessible book about the social history of the city in the Third Reich, so he started piecing together details, working out from old maps what the streets used to be called, gradually getting his bearings in that foreign country, the past.

All of that made him feel rather like a detective, so perhaps it wasn’t too surprising that he started imagining writing about one. Maybe someone who looked a bit like the Austrian actor and Out of Africa star Klaus-Maria Brandauer, someone whose face had that exact mixture of insolence and playfulness. When he started writing novels based on story rather than self-indulgence, that was how he imagined Bernie Gunther, setting out as he does to try to do the right thing against the backdrop of a monstrously criminal state.

But now that is getting a lot harder. We’re into the war years, Bernie is back in the Kriminalpolizei, and it is more difficult than ever to avoid complicity with the Nazi regime. After all, he wears their uniform, takes their money, knows full well what horrors the Einsatzgruppen are up to in the Ukraine. “I like to paint him into an ever tighter corner,” says Kerr, “so that the capacity for moral ambiguity becomes greater and greater.”

A large part of that moral ambiguity lies in the fact that Gunther has become the protégé of Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of the Final Solution. Gunther’s barely masked contempt for the Nazi regime, the very fact that he thinks differently to most of his lackeys, makes him invaluable to Heydrich – “like a bent coat hanger in a toolbox – useful to have around.”

The book had its origins in a research trip Kerr made to Jungfern-Breschan, the country house ten miles outside Prague that was Heydrich’s base as head of that part of Czechoslovakia incorporated into the Third Reich. “In Edinburgh terms, it’s like Dalkeith Palace,” says Kerr. “It’s a proper country house, with butlers and everything. My shorthand for this novel is Downton Abbey – with SS.”

Jungfern-Breschan’s history, it turns out, is almost a marker for the last century itself. Originally owned by the husband of Adele Bloch Bauer, the model for Gustav Klimt’s most famous portraits, it was commandeered by Heydrich and turned into a Czech secret weapons facility after the war. “It’s more or less derelict now, and nobody seems to know what to do with it. There’s an unattractive gate and a gatekeeper who is bored solid because nothing ever happens. I got talking to him and he let me in to wander round its empty rooms to my heart’s content.”

Although the murder there of one of Heydrich’s four adjutants which Gunther is summoned to investigate can be seen as a nod to the classic Agatha Christie locked room mysteries, Kerr’s plot ripples out far wider, linking an apparently motiveless murder of a Dutch immigrant worker in Berlin to Nazi attempts to round up the Czech resistance network. Always, in the background, is our own knowledge of that conference that Heydrich is to chair in an unassuming Berlin suburb where in January 1942 the fate of European Jewry is to be decided. We know the road is leading to Wannsee, because Heydrich has already been ordered to come up with some way of killing Jews that will not drive those doing the killing to drink, madness or suicide. And we know the effect even witnessing those executions had on Gunther in Minsk: the man we see at the start of the novel can no longer see any point in not blowing his brains out.

So here we are, at the dark heart of the 20th century. And that central question – of whether the fiction of the thriller, of tight plots that try to outfox the reader, has any business latching onto even the perimeters of such horror – remains, to my mind at least, open. Even just one scene in Prague Fatale, of a near-naked woman being tortured in a dungeon and threatened with rape as she lies close to death, left me feeling queasy, even though of course I don’t doubt that such things happened.

Kerr, I sense, shares some of my unease. After Field Gray appeared last year, he wrote that he didn’t know how much longer he could carry on writing the series. “It’s true,” he says. “Each time I start a Bernie Gunther novel I ask myself could this be the last one. The thing about spending time with the Nazis is … well, you feel the need to have a long, hot shower at the end of Prague Fatale. You are hanging out with some particularly nasty people whom you’re having to understand as human beings and are almost on a day by day conversational level with them. So you feel a sense of pollution just by being there.

“You know, I’ve been reading about the Nazis off and on for about 30 years, and their capacity to shock just doesn’t go away. I was reading for example about the Einsatzgruppen, and how the police were sent into the Ukraine to clean up so-called partisan activity. And one of the orders was to shoot anyone who was still wearing a uniform. Well, they came across a group of boy scouts. And some officers said, surely these orders don’t mean … but yes, they decided that’s exactly what they meant. They shot them all.”

But if we know how horrendous they were, why do the Nazis continue to haunt our collective imagination? “It’s because when we look back on those times,” says Kerr, “it fascinates us because the good guys quite clearly are the good guys and it helps that the bad guys walk around with a little skull and crossbones on their hats. Most times it isn’t like that. In Iraq, Afghanistan, we’re not even certain whether we’re the good guys or not. It’s rare in history to have such a clear moral dichotomy. After all, you don’t get more evil incarnate than the Nazis.”

Kerr’s defence of the writer’s right to write about such horrors is as robust and convincing as he is affable and articulate. The notion that a character such as Gunther would only reveal the depths of his complicity the more we know him has an obvious psychological truth. The notion of anything being ruled off limits to any writer is clearly untenable. His books have an impressive grasp of time and place, and his plot has a firm lock on history. All of that’s true. And yet, I can’t help thinking. And yet …

• Prague Spring, by Philip Kerr, is published by Quercus, price £17.99.