I can’t think of many fictional characters who have thrilled and entertained me as much as Bernie Gunther. Inspired to create him after wondering what Raymond Chandler’s detective novels would be like if he’d lived not in Los Angeles but 1930s Berlin, Philip Kerr wrote fourteen Gunther novels, of which Prussian Blue is the twelfth. Greeks Bearing Gifts has just been published; and the sad news of Philip Kerr’s death earlier this month means that next year’s Metropolis will be the final Gunther novel. Those that have already read it are claiming it as one of Kerr’s best.
Gunther is one of crime fiction’s most complex, fascinating characters. When we first meet him in March Violets he is working as a private detective; later books describe Gunther’s service both in the Berlin Kriminalpolizei (or ‘Kripo’), and Captain in the SS during World War Two. This latter decision was a bold move on Kerr’s part, highlighting just how nuanced a character Gunther is. This is a man living through extraordinary times, ones which require him to make troubling moral choices that most of us never have to consider. Whilst Gunther never entirely loses the reader’s sympathy, the reader may sometimes struggle to maintain it; and perhaps it is this moral complexity (and humanity) which explains why these books have reached and held such a devoted audience.
In Prussian Blue, Kerr gives the reader an intriguing dual narrative, split between 1956 and 1939. The later narrative follows on directly from the previous book, The Other Side of Silence; Gunther’s quiet life on the French Riviera is snatched away when an old enemy resurfaces, and he is forced to go on the run. Meanwhile, in 1939 the younger detective is assigned a murder case at the Berghof, Hitler’s mountain hideaway in the Bavarian alps. A man has been shot on the terrace of the Fuhrer’s new villa, and the pressure is on for Gunther to solve the case in the week before Hitler arrives to celebrate his 50th birthday.
Despite its length – at over 500 pages – Kerr controls his narrative with an expert hand. Murder and violence are rarely far away, and Kerr doesn’t shy away from showing the reader the brutal consequences of such actions. The story builds to a satisfying dual climax, and whilst the mystery of the killer on Hitler’s mountain is solved, the resolution is far from satisfying, for both Gunther and the reader.
As always, the writing is top notch. Kerr is always ready with a sly simile, or a striking piece of slang. These have always been my own particular joys from the series. More surprising this time around was the emotional punch that the book had. Maybe it’s a symptom of getting older, and the fact that I’m much closer in age now to Bernie Gunther than I was when I read my first book in the series, aged seventeen. In one particularly striking passage, Gunther encounters the dead body of a colleague:
He stared straight ahead of him and over my shoulder, and if I’d spoken to him I thought he might almost have answered, so clear were his eyes. The glint in the irises was just a reflection of the headlights of course but all the same it was strange how alive he still looked. I don’t know why, but I wiped some of the frost off his eyebrows and hair and then I sat with him and lit a cigarette myself… There was much I wanted to tell him but mostly it was that I’d misjudged him and that he’d been a good comrade and that’s the best you can say to a man when he’s dead or going to die. Even if it’s not true. The truth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Never was.
I’m clearly getting sentimental in my middle-age, but this paragraph and the ones around it knocked me for six when I first read them. Bernie Gunther is a wholly rounded, wholly modern creation; and it’s not often you can say that about the protagonist of a crime novel. If he’s not already in your reading life, don’t prolong his absence any longer.