James Gault reviews Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr
Set in Germany just before and just after WW2, Berlin Noir isn’t a novel. It’s a collection in one volume of the first three of Kerr’s Bernie Gunther thrillers: March Violets, The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem. So right away it’s great value for money, certainly cheaper than buying the novels individually. They’re not short novels, so would you want to read all three novels, one after the other, right off? Well, I did. And reading them all at once threw up some interesting points about what can happen when an author is working on a series of novels
For fans of police thrillers with political overtones, the first two novels are fantastic reads but are characterised by a multitude of excesses: excessive bad language; too much sex; more violence than a normally sensitive person can readily cope with; a multitude of geographical details on the cities of Berlin and Vienna; a plethora of information and comments on the history of pre- and post-war Germany; an extensive cast of characters moving in and out of the plot. Whether these excesses add to or detract from the works will depend on the attitudes of each individual reader, but, for what it’s worth, here are my personal views.
I believe myself that if swearing, sex and violence are integral to the story and characterisation, the author should not withdraw them from a false fear of offending readers. However, if sadistic murders, torture, deviant and non-deviant sexual encounters and the ubiquitous use of the F-word put you off, this book isn’t for you. Did Kerr have to put all of this in? I think so, but more of that when I get to the last of the three novels in the book.
The question of attention to historical and geographical detail is always a difficult problem for the writer. A lot of work goes into research and the acquisition of knowledge, and it is hard decision to leave any of it out. It’s not such a problem for writers of historical novels; the reader wants the history as well as the story. The Bernie Gunther books are both detective stories and historical novels. As a lover of both, I loved the historical detail. I’m not so fond of travel books, and I did find the detailed descriptions of the streets and buildings of 1940’s Berlin a bit superfluous and distracting.
The other problem that detective thriller writers (and their readers) face is keeping track of the many characters involved in the intrigue. The plots of all three of these novels are complex, involving several crimes and killings. There are numerous victims, suspects and witnesses. Even if every single one jumped out of the pages in an unforgettable fashion, a reader would still struggle to remember who was who. Philip Kerr did have a talent for tagging minor characters with interesting back stories, unique personalities and physical characteristics, but, even so, it is hard to keep all of them in your mind at the same time. The German names don’t help, and I found myself flicking back to earlier characters to check exactly who was appearing in each scene. It’s an unavoidable problem and it makes the novels a harder read than they would be otherwise.
The final novel, A German Requiem, is less than the first two in terms of excesses. There are fewer characters and less geographical and historical detail. This makes the novel an easier read. This is a plus. There is also less swearing and the violence is downgraded slightly. For me, this was a bit of a minus. Bernie seems to have been tamed a little and the villains have become a bit less disgusting. Maybe age, marriage and his wartime experiences had mellowed Kerr’s disgruntled, ironic hero with his hatred of the Nazi authorities. Sure, Bernie doesn’t like the Soviet’s much, nor is he a fan of the ‘Amis’, but the edge is no longer there. Maybe it was inevitable; occupation, especially Russian occupation, was bad, but perhaps it didn’t really compare to the evil of Nazi rule. Or maybe the publisher told him to cut down as he was putting potential readers off.
All in all, however, in my opinion these are three great novels by a great Scottish writer whom we unfortunately lost to cancer earlier this this year. For new readers of his thrillers, this volume is the prefect introduction to his body of work. And, if you liked it, there is a weighty pile of other novels by him waiting for you. Of course, as a Scot and writer of thrillers myself, I may be a bit biased. But only a
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