Okay, so the title is a bit of a cheat – I’ve actually admired Kerr’s work for years now, but I’m coming to the end of the latest book in the Bernie Gunther series, A Man Without Breath, and reading it has reminded me just what a class act he is.
We’ll get onto the quality of his writing in a minute, but one reason I love Kerr is because he was one of the first authors I saw live speak about their work. I was an impressionable 17-year old in 1991 when Kerr, along with two other writers (John Harvey, whose work I’ve never read and must, must get to at some point; and a third writer whose name escapes me) came and spoke at my local library on a crime-themed evening. Kerr had just published A German Requiem, the downbeat, semi-spy thriller that forms the last part of the original Gunther trilogy (and probably one of the hardest going books in the series; so not my recommendation for the best place to start).
If I remember rightly, all of the authors talked about their work, and did a reading. Then it was time for questions from the floor. Given the town I grew up in – close to London, leafy, relatively affluent – you can imagine the sort of audience that were there. Broadly speaking, it was an older demographic – I was certainly the youngest person there, by a country mile. I remember one sweet-looking elderly lady asking the panel a question about their muse, and where it came from.
Harvey and the other writer were polite, but when it was Kerr’s turn his answer bordered on the rude. ‘If you wait for the muse to arrive, you’ll never write anything,’ he said. ‘It’s all about work, day after day, even if you don’t feel like it.’ Or words to that effect. I remember at the time thinking he was somewhat harsh, but he certainly made an impression; and I left the evening having bought a copy of the second Gunther novel The Pale Criminal, with its funky red cover. The fact that the title and epigram came from a Nietzsche quote also spoke to my pretentious teenage self.
I enjoyed The Pale Criminal very much, and soon moved on to the other books in the series. The Gunther books were followed by the striking A Philosophical Investigation, which I bought in hardback and eagerly devoured; I also took the opportunity to go to another reading by Kerr, at a bookshop on Camden High Street. This was a somewhat different affair; it was mid-week, early evening, and in the basement of the bookshop. The audience was scant – myself and no more than half a dozen others, and again I have a memory of being the youngest person there.
I was also the only person to go and get my copy of A Philosophical Investigation signed, which I was thrilled about; Kerr was probably somewhat relieved that he wasn’t completely wasting his time. Somewhat in awe of this ‘real’ writer, I was able to do little more than say my name. He wrote this into the book and then – in a modish, striking move – crossed out the printed ‘Philip Kerr’ on the title page and signed his name underneath. I still have the book, and it’s one of my most treasured possessions.
But enough fan-love. The second reason I adore Kerr is the quality of his writing – in the Gunther novels, it flows so readily that it’s hardly like reading at all. A Man Without Breath is over 500 pages long, well in excess of what I would normally read – but I’m approaching the end, and have barely broken into a sweat. Indeed, I’m already lamenting finishing the novel, which tells you Kerr is doing something right.
Kerr’s writing is very much in the Chandler style – he described the first three Gunther books as an attempt to imagine what Chandler’s writing would have been like if he lived in 30s Berlin rather than LA – and he has a real knack for the Marlowe-esque metaphor. In A Man Without Breath, Gunther describes a run-down spa resort in Russia, where the spa pools ‘tasted like a fisherman’s bath water.‘ Meeting a superior officer for the first time, Gunther remarks that his voice ‘reminded me that among the many things a man can have for breakfast, a few of them come out of a tall bottle.‘ Kerr is also very fond of contemporary German slang, and spreads it liberally through the books – his brass policeman’s badge is a ‘beer token’, whilst cigarettes are ‘nails‘, and venereal disease ‘jelly‘.
But what’s also interesting is what sits underneath these noir tropes. Throughout Kerr’s books, it’s clear that there’s a lot more going on than just the plot. And Bernie Gunther is such an engaging character because he is complicated, and conflicted. Take this quote from A Man Without Breath:
‘The ultimate goal of the science of criminal detection is a state of complete understanding, and of course the liberation of oneself from various states of imprisonment.’
That’s not something you expect in your usual police procedural. There’s a depth in Kerr’s work that stays with you long after the book has finished, and Bernie Gunther is one of those rare characters that I treat like a real person, as real to me as some friends I haven’t seen in years. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, I’d recommend March Violets, the first book in the series, and which is an all-out noir thrill-a-thon; or perhaps The One from the Other, which has probably the best title in the series, and marked Gunther’s return after an absence of over 10 years. If you’re not already familiar with Kerr’s work, then welcome to your new obsession.