From the Record June 9th, 2017
I’m surprised that it took me so long to find Philip Kerr. I am a huge fan of Raymond Chandler, and, although Kerr has been compared to Alan Furst and John Le Carré, he and Chandler must be, at some level…. Well, I’d say soul-mates, but their respective detectives, Marlowe and Gunther, would give me a slap across the kisser and turf me out of the joint for employing such an effete expression. Let’s say, instead, that Chandler and Kerr are hewn from the same granite. Chandler readers are intrigued by the cool, “hard-boiled”, unflappable toughness of the hard-drinking, savvy, smart-mouthed, and surprisingly poetic main character. Marlowe is hyper street smart, and able to pick up on subtle cues, aspects of dress, and mannerisms of characters in trying to anticipate their intentions. But Chandler came rather late to the crime-fiction biz, so his total output—eight Marlowe novels and several screenplays—is quickly exhausted. British writer Philip Kerr, is, by comparison, rather prolific. So far he has written some 30 novels, and the “Bernie Gunther” series, which began in the early 90’s, shows no sign of losing steam.
The first in the series, March Violets, is set in Berlin just before the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Bernie Gunther a former police officer (“bull”) is now a private investigator. Gunther is hired by wealthy industrialist Hermann Six to investigate the murder (by incineration?) of his daughter (Grete Pfarr) and son-in-law (Paul Pfarr) and the theft of a valuable necklace. Gunther allies himself with a female investigator, Inge Laurenz, and they painstakingly follow a trail of leads through a treacherous gauntlet, with the German Strength Crime syndicate on one hand and various factions of the Nazi party on the other. The plot has as many twists as a tap dancer going cold turkey in a flop house. (NB. my version of Chandler!)
Kerr summons up an ambivalent vision of the Berlin of the 1930’s. The Nazis are in the ascendancy and everyone is on a sell-out continuum. Some (the March Violets) see which way the wind is blowing and seek to hitch their wagons to the movement. In fact there are great swathes of society that are full of hope, and among these are the various factions in the higher echelons of the Nazi party who compete for supremacy. There are also, in the minority, those who try to tune out the propaganda speeches, avoid giving the increasingly obligatory “Sieg Heil!”, ignore the increasing encroachments on their freedom and sanity, and hope this whole Nazi thing will just blow over. As for the Jews, they line up in front of pawn shops desperately trying to sell articles of value so that they can escape. The Berlin of the time, renowned for its decadence, is in transition as the urban geography is being refashioned by the militaristic leaders. It is a society on the precipice, as the Nazi regime relentlessly solidifies its grip on every aspect of society.
Within this context P.I. Gunther plies his humble trade. This is where you’ll see more than a broad-brush similarity between Kerr and Chandler. Oddly enough, the stories are roughly contemporary… Chandler’s novels are set in the thirties and forties and so are Kerr’s. So it is uncannily as if Marlowe has an alter-ego clear on the other side of the globe who lives in a kind of “bizarro world” where Hollywood Boulevard and Rodeo Drive are replaced by Trautenaustrasse and Friedrichstrasse.
Racism is an uncomfortable component of both reading experiences. Chandler’s Marlowe moves in circles where establishments that accommodate black clients are identified as “dinge” joints or Negro bars. Kerr’s Gunther is not racist, but must necessarily encounter Jews who are in various states of despair, and it is politically impolitic to show too much sympathy.
Both Chandler and Kerr have a deft approach to characterization, and seem to take pride in understated overstatement. Chandler: “He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck”. Kerr: “The arms of his jacket had been stuffed with several kilos of potatoes and they ended prematurely, revealing wrists and fists that were the size and colour of two boiled lobsters”. Both detectives are lady-killers, but in this regard Marlowe shows more restraint—much more!
Both detectives are subject to inordinate amounts of physical abuse. While contemporary sports figures “wussily” blanch at the prospect of more than two concussions, both Marlowe and Gunther are knocked unconscious almost as frequently as they fall asleep in the normal way. And usually a shot of scotch is enough to get them revived, upstanding, and back on the case.
Oh, and neither takes divorce cases!
Philip Kerr’s lead-off trilogy, Berlin Noir, is available in the Lennoxville Library, and most of the succeeding volumes are either in the Library or available via inter-library loan.
The weekend at Lennoxville Library promises to be exciting. As part of the Friendship Day festivities the Library is holding its annual Friendship-Day book sale. There are hundreds and hundreds of titles to choose from and the prices??? $2 for hardcover; $1 for paperback and special deals available… These are books that have been donated to the library but just can’t be accommodated in our collection. Later Saturday afternoon the selling gets really intense! Sale goes from 10:00 am- 3:00pm @ the Library
The Library welcomes Breanna Patrick as our new TD summer reading club animator. For those of you with school-age children, here is a possible activity. Starting on Tuesday, June 13th, every Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon for 9 weeks, the Breanna will lead children aged 4 – 11 in a series of literacy-based activities, including story-telling and arts and crafts activities. This is part of a nation-wide initiative arising from a collaboration between the TD Bank, Library and Archives Canada, and The Toronto Public Library.