Friday, June 18, 2010

The Ballad of Bernie Gunther

How is it that Philip Kerr continues to ascend my list of top authors as easily as he does?
He is six books into his watershed Bernie Gunther series with a 7th due in October 2010. The first three books in the series (March Violets, A Pale Criminal, A German Requiem) were written in the late 80's and early 90's and were later collected into a one volume edition titled Berlin Noir. These books were tough, tough noir so hard it made your stomach ache like you had been chewing on broken glass. Kerr's books were so taut and twisty they released slowly like a coiled cobra.
One of the reasons the books were so effective was Kerr's lean and powerful prose which was aided immensely by the historical depth of the Nazi era. Of course it helped that his character, Bernie Gunther is a former German police detective with the morality of a pirate. Gunther gets to witness the Nazi depravity before, during and after the war.
Seventeen years after the trilogy finished, with a solid closure, Kerr resurrected Gunther with a novel (The One From the Other) so unbelievable and perfect that it easily kept pace with the other novels and in some ways expanded and surpassed them. This was Kerr writing retrospectively about the Holocaust and showing a new side of the history of his character during the war (during which he has not set a book).
A year later he put out A Quiet Flame which detailed a piece of history Argentina hopes will be relegated to few memories. The novel was set amid postwar decadence in the South American country and it is a slam bang thriller so well written it made my list of 2009's Best Books.
The sixth book If the Dead Rise Not fills in many of the gaps in Bernie's life and adds a worthy new chapter. Kerr's willingness to experiment with new narrative structures (such as two different time periods) has kept the series from growing stagnant or stale.
This sixth book, more than any other, further characterizes Gunther as a moral quandry. He is a reluctant hero, a man trapped by the flow of a dark piece of history and condemned to a brutal existence. He dishes it out - but has to take a fair amount too. And, he is forced to commit horrific acts that are morally reprehensible but understandable given his contemporaries. Gunther is a hero for his time, when a hero was a dark knight who had to be just as brutal as the Nazi's in order to battle them. More than any other character in noir, Gunther is a man haunted and hunted by his past. He is trapped by the sins of an entire nation but shows time and again how much of a surviver he is, as well as a stunning ability to overcome trouble.
One of the more brilliant twists Kerr devised was forcing his character to leave Germany and move to South America with the people he despised most. For the character it was shattering moment, and continues his Dante-like journey through the stages of hell. Kerr leaves the morality of his character's choices up to the reader and that is why the series is so successful.
It is my theory Kerr has written the seven definitive books on the Nazi era. He has gone far and beyond most histories and gives the reader a true feeling of what Nazi Germany (and Argentina....) were like.

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