The author of the popular Bernhard “Bernie” Gunther series, Philip Kerr has also written stand-alone bestsellers and, writing as P.B. Kerr, he also publishes an immensely popular fantasy series for young readers.
Kerr’s Gunther novels are often set in Berlin shortly before, during, and after World War II. Bernie Gunther is an ex-police officer turned private investigator. The first three in the series, March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiem, were published between 1989 and 1991, and later gathered in the omnibus volume, Berlin Noir. Kerr busied himself with other novels for fifteen years before returning to the Bernie Gunther books in 2006 with The One from the Other, followed by A Quiet Flame, If the Dead Rise Not, Field Gray, and Prague Fatale. Typical of the critical praise the series has garnered is a Publishers Weekly notice commenting that Kerr “smoothly integrates a noir crime plot with an authentic historical background.” Patrick Anderson, writing in the Washington Post on Field Gray, noted, ” Kerr resurrects the past to remind us that the fascist mentality endures, all over the world, even though swastikas and jackboots are no longer its outward trappings.” Kirkus Reviews had praise for the 2012 series installment, Prague Fatale: “Bernie’s voice—ironic, mordantly funny, inimitable—reflects a world-weary journey. Still—and this is the entertaining heart of the matter—readers are never permitted to forget that survival is his religion.”
First, could you describe your connection to Berlin? How did you come to live there or become interested in it?
I’ve been interested in Berlin ever since I was a student, when I studied German jurisprudence and philosophy as a post-graduate. I got interested in the phenomenon of Nazism from a philosophical POV. I’ve been making visits there since 1988 when it was more exciting and very Le Carre because of the wall. Visiting the east and dodging the Stasi was always quite a thrill. And of course the state of Berlin even in 1988 was a living link with the fall of Berlin. The place was still a ruin and it was possible easily to imagine that the Red Army had just left. Berlin is so different today. I often stay at the Adlon which has a fine view of the Brandenburg Gate and it still seems hard to imagine that the whole area was one large mine field.
What things about Berlin make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Berlin and St Petersburg are the two pivotal cities for the whole of twentieth century history. The Bolshevik Revolution gives birth to the Nazi one. This period is the most important event in history since the Reformation. And then we have the Cold War which again puts Berlin at the centre of everything. On all sorts of levels – political, moral, philosophical – Berlin fascinates me.
Yes, I tried to make Berlin a character in the same way that Los Angeles is a character in Chandler, which is probably where people get the idea that I copied Chandler. I do admire his descriptions of places and have always used them as an example of excellence that I set myself. It seems to me that a sense of place is essential in all good fiction. I like to think of myself as being rather similar to a painter in that I describe pictures of places.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
Of course. You have to …. In physics Heisenberg talks about the observer effect which refers to changes that the act of observation make on the phenomenon being observed. This is the same with writing. The process of imagining a set of characters in a piece of fiction inevitably changes how they behave and react; and yet that too is affected by the period in which I too exist. I hope to make scenes seem more authentically ‘thirties’ by the use of small and seemingly trivial details (like a pointillist in painting adding small spots of colour); this works too, however one has to be aware that these details only mean something by virtue of the fact that I am writing about this period from a POV that is set in the present.
How does Bernie Gunther interact with his surroundings?
I try to study the Berlin character. I avoid obvious heroism. … I find it impossible to imagine the setting of Nazi Germany not affecting anyone.
Has there been any local reaction to your works? What do German reviewers think?
My books are published in more than forty different languages. Including German. The last time I was in Berlin I saw my books displayed in tourist shops (not bookshops) alongside Le Carre and Isherwood. That was quite a little moment for me. I think that’s a reaction from locals that speaks for itself.
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
Well, I’m very fond of several writers but I don’t feel influenced by anyone really. I don’t read many novels; to be honest I don’t read much at all, not in the way of entertainment, not the way I used to. Most of what I read is research, for what I’m writing. It seems to me that a novel demands so much from its author that it becomes hard to remove one’s mind from that and put it in someone else’s imagination. Reading for pleasure is like a holiday for me and I don’t take enough holidays.
Thanks much, Philip, for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.