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Bye, bye, Bernie

September 10, 2019

I sat up in bed a bit too late last night finishing Metropolis by Philip Kerr.


It’s taken months. Not the actual reading. Although I managed not to hoover it up in one or two sittings, as I have done in the past with other Kerr novels, I did read it fairly quickly. It took months because it sat on the coffee table for a long time before I could bring myself to open it. Why? Because Philip Kerr will never write another Bernie Gunther novel. He’d only just handed the manuscript over to his publisher before he died last year.

I discovered Philip Kerr in the 1990s through a review of his novel A Philosophical Investigation written by Margaret Cannon (the mystery reviewer at the Globe and Mail, who’s introduced me to a number of my favourite writers). That novel was set in a dystopian near future London. (Pulling it off the shelf just now to check, I discover it was set in 2013. I must read it again to see how it compares to the actual 2013.) I loved the novel, gave it to my partner Mike to read and foisted it on at least a couple of friends.

Wanting more of Philip Kerr, I discovered that prior to this novel, he had written three novels: March Violets, The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem, which were collectively known and later published together as the Berlin Noir trilogy. I read and loved all of them.

March Violets, set in 1936, introduced the world to Bernie Gunther, a former cop, forced out of Kripo by his refusal to join the Nazi Party and now plying his trade as a private detective in Berlin. The Pale Criminal is set in 1938, as Germany awaits the coming war. A German Requiem leaps forward to 1947, the postwar years in Berlin and Vienna.

Kerr was, bless him, a prolific writer. In addition to children’s books, standalone novels and some non-fiction, he produced eleven more Bernie Gunther novels before his death.

Those Bernie Gunther novels jumped around a lot chronologically. We don’t learn until later novels that Bernie was conscripted (pressganged) first back into the Berlin police during the war and then into the SS.

After the war Bernie gets around a lot, escaping the war criminal status his involvement in the SS – however involuntary or reluctant – has bestowed upon him. For example, he turns up in Argentina in 1950 and in Cuba in 1954, but whenever and wherever the action begins, he is always dragged back to past incidents in Germany during the war.

Real people (mostly, but not always, Nazis) pepper the pages of his novels, including, extraordinarily, Somerset Maugham with the candlestick in the south of France. (Okay, I don’t think there was a candlestick involved.)

It’s interesting that Kerr decided in 2017 that his next Bernie Gunther was to be a prequel of sorts. Metropolis is set in Berlin in 1928 when the decadence of the city was legend. (Roughly the time when Cabaret, the film loosely based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin, was set.) The Nazis are not yet in power, although they loom large. Bernie has just been promoted to the murder squad.

Fascinating to meet a young Bernie still recovering from the horrors of First World War trenches, as yet unpolluted by the horrors of the Second World War.

Thank you, Philip Kerr, for giving me (and the rest of the world) Bernie Gunther. I’m going to miss you both.


PS If you like a good detective story and you haven’t yet discovered Bernie Gunther, I encourage you to do so. Unlike me, you could actually read the novels in chronological order, starting with Metropolis.

As I said, some of the novels begin in the 1950s, but the main plot takes place during the war. For more about the individual books, click here.

  1. Metropolis, set in 1928.
  2. If The Dead Rise Not, set in 1934.
  3. March Violets, set in 1936.
  4. The Pale Criminal, set in 1938.
  5. Prussian Blue, set in 1939.
  6. Prague Fatale, set in 1941.
  7. The Lady From Zagreb, set in 1942-3.
  8. A Man Without Breath, set in 1943.
  9. A German Requiem, set in 1947–48.
  10. The One From the Other, set in 1949.
  11. A Quiet Flame, set in 1950.
  12. Field Gray, set in 1954.
  13. The Other Side of Silence, set in 1956.
  14. Greeks Bearing Gifts, set in 1957.


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