Scottish author Philip Kerr is the author of eight novels about Bernie Gunther, a Berlin cop.
Set during WWII, Kerr looks at an honest cop trying to find order amid chaos and evil. The bestselling Field Gray was nominated for the 2012 Edgar Award for Best Novel. Kerr also is the author of A Quiet Flame and the fantasy series Children of the Lamp. He lives in London.
A Man Without Breath is the latest novel in the Bernie series. Kerr now is making a rare tour of the United States.
Mystery Scene caught up with Kerr before his tour.
Q: Most historical mysteries that take place during WWII are from the viewpoint of the Allied forces; why did you decide to take the reader deep into German society?
A: I started this series so long ago it's hard to remember; but I was always interested in the cultural and philosophical roots of Nazism – ever since I did a post-grad degree in German law and philosophy. I think I just wanted to understand what life might have been like for an ordinary German. I wanted to walk the moral tightrope, as it were; and a cop seemed an interesting way of taking this walk. I wanted to see how deep I could immerse myself in this world. When you read Chandler you can really taste L.A.; I set myself the almost impossible task of trying to do the same with Berlin in 1936. It seems crazy now. But such is the ambition/arrogance of youth.
Q: There was a big gap between the third Bernie Gunther novel, A German Requim (1991) and the fourth novel, The One from the Other (2006). Why?
A: I wrote a lot of other stuff. You see I always wanted to be a writer but I didn't want to write the same thing again and again; a lot of crime writing feels like you are on a treadmill: the author brings out one book a year featuring Inspector Bloggs; so I quit the character for a while to write other things. It's always a good thing to walk away from something successful. I think it separates one from the career novelist, so to speak. You could get away with that sort of thing then. Not so easy now. Three books seemed like a nice number. I think it was a good thing I did stop for a while. It meant that a lot of people were able to discover me, if you like. The first three were collected as a trilogy and they achieved a critical mass, which meant that when I came back to the character there were lots of people keen that I should do so. I learned a lot during that interregnum.
Q: Most of us think that Hitler allowed no opposition to his opinions but A Man Without Breath tells that the War Crimes Bureau was anti Nazi; how did this happen?
A: They were quietly anti-Nazi; they would never have dreamed of opposing Hitler openly. By the German constitution Hitler was obliged to recognize the independence of the Wehrmacht, which effectively allowed many to sit in their offices at the High Command and quietly despise Hitler--but not when he was winning, of course. Their opposition to Hitler only really grew when he invaded the Soviet Union which most of the officer class regarded as the ultimate folie de grandeur. After the defeat of France in 1940 it is highly unlikely that any of these men were opposed to Hitler.
Q: You uncover so much detail about life in German during WWII, what is the strangest thing your research has brought you?
A: I find strange things all the time. It's a period that is full of strange things. That's what makes it interesting. I remember a time many years ago when I went to a place called Wewelsburg, where Himmler bought a castle that was to be the “spiritual HQ” of the SS. It was also the smallest concentration camp in Germany. 800 Soviet POWs were worked to death in the place. It's now a Youth Hostel. I stayed there on my own one night. While I was there I discovered that the little village near the castle is still used for SS reunions; that was an uncomfortable revelation to me—that there are plenty of people for whom Nazism still means something important.
Q: The banality of evil has been used to describe how the German people allowed Hitler to execute the Jews and turn a blind eye to his atrocities. Bernie seems to combat that banality of evil every day. Could you comment on this? How does Bernie keep himself sane when dealing with the Nazis, for whom it is obvious he has little respect?
A: Like most Berliners Bernie has a sharp, dark, bitter sense of humor. He is the embodiment of the kind of Berliner Hitler hated. Leftish, irreverent, sexually-incontinent, and ultimately anarchic. He keeps himself sane—to some degree (I think Bernie has deep issues)--with his bitter jokes. This is his only source of rebellion. It keeps him sane but more importantly it helps the reader (and the writer) get through what would otherwise be very bleak stories. Above all he is a survivor, although not always
Q: Why are the Bernie novels written out of sequence?
A: After three books and a long absence I didn't want to repeat myself; I wanted to create a modern version of a Flying Dutchman. Or a Flashman figure. He is also a bit of a Zelig. And above all an unreliable narrator. Like many Germans who were in the war you only have his word for what he actually did. Moving periods messes things up rather nicely. It means there is no one truth. There is nothing certain. Another reason is that there is so much more information available today than there was back when I first started writing these books. I couldn't have written several of these stories back in the day because we didn't know x or z or y. Since the mid-1980s when I first started writing the books so much has been published on the subject of the Third Reich. There were good stories that became available to me as a result - too good to walk away from.
Q: What is the status of the HBO movie? Any thoughts on who you would like to see play Bernie?
A: Difficult question. These things take time. But perhaps we are now at the end of the beginning. As to who should play Bernie I very much like and admire Michael Fassbinder. He is part German, and a fantastically good actor. But when I first started I thought of Klaus Maria Brandauer. He had a cheeky grin and a twinkle in his eye and he was very very German. I am wary about saying who I don't want to play Bernie. I did a TV series back in the 1990s and they asked me who should play the part of the hero; and I named an actor who I said should under no circumstances play the part and that is who they cast. As it happens he did a fine job.
Photo: Philip Kerr photo by Phil Wilkinson; courtesy Putnam