This matchup in the Ultimate Mystery Writers Bracket pits Philip Kerr's historical mysteries set amidst the Nazi Era, against Chelsea Cain and her modern series set in Portland and highlighted by a brutal, female serial killer (Gretchen Lowell). Is this one that could be deceptively close?
1) Quality of Books - Cain has written four books featuring the same Task Force and serial killer Gretchen Lowell (though she only has a main role in 3 of them). How do her books stack up?
Very Good: Heartsick
Good: Sweetheart, Evil at Heart, The Night Season
Kerr on the other hand has written eight Bernie Gunther novels which break down thusly:
Great: The One from the Other, A Quiet Flame
Very Good: Prague Fatale, The Pale Criminal, A German Requeim, If the Dead Rise Not
Good: March Violets
Okay: Field Gray
Kerr takes this one due to his two great books which are stronger than anything Cain has written. It should be noted though that Kerr wrote one book which landed in the "okay" catagory while Cain did not. However, Kerr has writen two great books and another (Prague Fatale) that I debated putting in that catagory.
2) Great Characters - Cain has based her series around the twin pillars of haunted Detective Archie Sheridan and serial killer Gretchen Lowell. The two have a twisted history that involves Sheridan leading a task force to track down a serial killer, all the while cheating on his wife with Lowell...who was inserting herself into the investigation and manipulating Sheridan all along. Then she tried to kill him...it gets pretty twisted from here on. Suffice it to say that Sheridan is fighting a serious vicodin addiction and Lowell is still pulling strings from prison (and outside). The true star of Cain's lineup is Gretchen Lowell. Her gutsy and twisted female serial killer is a psycho without remorse who could teach other literary serial killers a thing or two. She is one manipulative and seriously messed up lady who cannot be trusted at all.
Kerr however has upped her in the creation of Bernie Gunther, a man whose life traces the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Gunther despises the Nazi's but has the morals of a pirate. He kills without remorse and shows us that in order to survive one of the darkest periods in history, he has to occasionally be even worse than some of the most reviled figures in history. From Argentina to Germany and back again, Gunther is a private detective unparalled in mystery fiction. His wit and intelligence (as well as horrible actions) make him a fantastic antihero. He is a brutal man with a soft spot from the ladies and no qualms about doing whatever he has to in order to survive all the while condemning all the misdeeds of those around him.
Lowell may be a genuine original in mystery fiction; but Gunther is one of the greatest fictious creations in literary history.
3) Style / Inner Workings / Readability - Cain's books are seize you by the throat page turners that often have shocking twists at the end (usually related to the Archie Sheridan / Gretchen Lowell dynamic). These are not books which are slowly savoured but must rather be devoured as quickly as possible. Each of them has been an enjoyable read and Cain's breezy style and psychological twistiness makes each book an entertaining experience. She gets into the heads of her characters and writes as steamily as she can. Overall, these are good but not great books.
Kerr relies on dense plots, packed with conspiracies and mystery. Each book ends with a jaw dropping twist and the novels are so taut and well written that you simply never want them to end. Gunther is always quick with a witty reply and is a witness to the horrible decadence of the Nazi's. His interactions with real, high ranking Nazi's feel real and Kerr never falls into cliche due to the fact that each book is slightly different. Even eight books in, Kerr avoids the trap of routine as he jumps through time (often contrasting past and present) and has so thoroughly complicated matters that it is virtually impossible to read the books "in order" (for example the most recent book Prague Fatale is the only to take part exclusively during the war, a time frame Kerr previously excluded). Kerr began the series as a simple trilogy set before and after World War Two, but seventeen years later he reached back and wrote the best book of the series The One From the Other set in Munich in 1949. No two books are ever the same - he keeps the series fresh, even when it does not quite work out (Field Grey being the best example; it simply jumps around too much and gets muddled). The latest has two chapters which cover 200 pages and function as a book within the book, a one take play set around a murder mystery at Reinhard Heydrich's country house. Few other writers are good enough to pull this off. Truly this makes Kerr special and very deserving of the 3 seed.
Cain's books are breezy but Kerr's are staggering.
Kerr handily defeats the younger Cain who has many more books to write about her characters. She can be cheered however by the fact that I would pit Kerr's eight book run against any other mystery series and be confident it could come out on top in almost any situation...or can it?