Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther and a Visit to the Mysterious Bookshop
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”—George Eliot, Middlemarch.
When asked by Vanity Fair (7/15), “If you’ve thrown out everything else, why even stick with detectives?” True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto answered, “It puts you in everything…They go everywhere.” When it comes to author Philip Kerr’s private eye Bernie Gunther, everything and anywhere means Nazi Germany and postwar Europe…and HBO, the same cable network carrying True Detective. At least according to Kerr, who during his April 8th appearance at the Mysterious Bookshop announced this news (quick with qualifiers like very probably and at some point).
Taking the stage at legendary Otto Penzler’s famous bookstore, he is asked if he has any casting say in any potential series. Kerr responds, “Like the cuckolded husband, the novelist is the last to know.” Once he would have chosen Klaus Maria Brandauer (Mephisto), describing him as having a “wonderful, charming, mischievous, insolent twinkle in his eye”; he is “suitably Germanic, and women seem to love him.” Alas, “time moved on”—the Austrian-born Brandauer is currently 72 years old—“and then,” he says without a trace of irony, “it was Arnold Schwarzenegger, believe it or not.” Nowadays “perfect casting would be Michael Fassbender, who is half-German anyway,” or Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones).
Despite a noirish cynicism a shade lighter than the pitch-black pessimism of German philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer, case-hardened Bernie is a deep-down Romantic in the many senses of the word. (And far funnier than the dour Schopenhauer, his gallows humor suitably hardboiled.) Kerr often calls Bernie a “Flying Dutchman” figure, taking him from his Fatherland to Paris, Soviet Russia, the Balkans, and beyond to Buenos Aires and Havana, all over the course of two decades.
The Other Side of Silence, which Kerr has come to promote, takes his German gumshoe to the French Riviera of 1956 where he works as a concierge at the Grand Hôtel du Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Heis hired by blackmailed spy-turned-writer Somerset Maugham and catches up with the shakedown artist he recognizes as a former captain in Reinhard Heydrich’s SD (Security Service), giving him the opportunity to settle an old score.
The series is a skillful blend of historical novel and detective mystery in which the research never overtakes story or character. Instead of shoehorning in the facts and details, Kerr is content to “wait for the history to lead me by the hand.”
For this eleventh book, Kerr’s homework took him to Kaliningrad because he “always wanted to write about the Battle of Königsberg, Germany’s equivalent of Stalingrad.” The city Königsberg is today called Kaliningrad because, explains Kerr, “the Russians ethnically cleansed it of Germans, and made it a Russian city,” keeping it as a “port for their submarines, even though it should technically belong to Poland.” The Cold War may be a thing of the past, but Kerr warns, “I don’t recommend you go there; Russians are not welcoming.”
The research, Kerr’s favorite part of the job, led to Bernie’s creation. After “a postgraduate degree in law and philosophy—dry as dust: Hegel, Kant, Fichte” and “several terrible novels,” Kerr’s German studies inspired him to want to write about Berlin.
Though at the time he was not necessarily thinking a private eye novel, he was interested in exploring “what life was like for an ordinary German during the thirties.” Writing for Dead Good, Kerr explained that “my own painstaking library research and pounding the Berlin streets…persuaded me that since I was behaving rather like a detective, I might as well write about one…Thus, Bernie Gunther was born.”
Over the years, his approach to research drastically changed. “I don’t take notebooks anymore” on his travels. “I just try to do the Robert De Niro method approach, just try to feel the place.” For Kaliningrad, “I had to capture the sensation of being there.”
He is able to “do this because I was a less-is-more novelist, not Jack Higgins, but a pointillist like Seurat —I like the little things. It is not photographic or real, but it shifts and shimmers and, step back, and the whole can be seen.” “Chandler,” whose Philip Marlowe has earned Bernie comparisons, “is like this – you can taste L.A. on your tongue.” “In my research, I was unearthing little known, interesting stuff, like panning for nuggets in the Klondike, or like a detective.”
Around this time Kerr apologizes for “sounding terribly pretentious, … but that’s not terribly uncommon [for writers].” While waxing “pretentious,” he explains the book’s title. “It comes from the greatest novelist, George Eliot. I urge you to look it up because it doesn’t appear as an epigraph because Eliot and the detective novel do not go together. But read it in Middlemarch.”
During Q&A, someone inquires, “What living mystery authors do you read?” “None,” replies Kerr. “But only because I am reading research.” While he signs books, the crowd retires for wine, beer, and cheese – right near the magazine rack showcasing The Strand Magazine.
Fellow historical crime fiction author James Ellroy (Perfidia) once pronounced the private eye dead. However, last year at the same Mysterious Bookshop, Ellroy responded to reports of his HBO 1950s-era series Shakedown featuring the late LAPD cop-turned-private eye Fred Otash. Apparently news of the PI’s demise has been greatly exaggerated, at least on HBO.
GILBERT COLON has written for Filmfax, Cinema Retro, Film.Music.Media, Crimespree Magazine, Crime Factory, and several other publications. His interview with Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, The Funeral) for Mystery Scene’s Ed Gorman appeared in the anthology book They’re Here, and he is a contributor-at-large for the St. Martin’s Press newsletter Tor.com and bare•bones e-zine (about which Thrilling Detective raved, “Noir, noir, noir”!). Read him at Gilbert Street and send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.