By choosing Nazi Germany as his setting, Philip Kerr has turned crime thrillers into something far more than pulp fiction.
If The Dead Rise Not, the sixth novel in his Bernie Gunther series, recently won the Crime Writers Association’s historical award – and shines a light on the darkest recesses of Berlin in 1934.
As an ex-policeman turned private detective Gunther is a bit of an unlikely anti-Nazi hero. He’s clever but decidedly rough, cultured and yet somewhat sleazy. But as he investigates, the links between petty criminals, big business and the Nazis are ruthlessly exposed.
Philip Kerr spoke to Yuri Prasad about why he uses the detective thriller genre and the importance of the novel to understanding history.
You cast Gunther as a very believable hyper-cynic, and a social democrat of sorts. Why was that?
Well, he’s not a social democrat of sorts, he’s a real democrat, a Republican. He believed in the Weimar Republic, as I think I myself would have done. But he’s certainly an anti‑Nazi. If he’s cynical it’s because he learned cynicism during the First World War. And if I’m a cynic it’s because I learned it from Tony Blair.
The Gunther series is reminiscent of the American crime novels of the 1930s. Few would have believed the genre appropriate for something as heavy as the Nazis. Why did you choose it?
I tend to think of these novels not as detective novels but as political ones. I always wondered what kind of books Raymond Chandler would have written if, instead of leaving Dulwich to live in Los Angeles, he had gone to live in Berlin.
In Chandler’s books, the detective Marlowe’s problems were only ever rich tycoons and corrupt policemen. Gunther’s problems are much greater.
Your books are extremely well researched. Why is getting the detail right so important?
The novels have always been a way for me to explain what happened, and as a result historical credibility is of paramount importance.
Details are very important. They’re small spots of colour that mean very little close up but when you take several steps back all those little spots of colour start to create a picture.
I want to breathe and smell the city myself when I write about it. All of that helps me to make it feel real and to project my own imagination into Bernie’s wide-brimmed hat.
In A German Requiem, Bernie battles with his perceived failure to do all he could to stop the Nazis. In what sense does his shame come to represent those of many others?
Yes, he feels guilty. And as the series progresses I want the guilt to increase as more of what Bernie did comes to light. I want to ask the question what is good and what is bad?
I like moral ambiguity in characters. It’s only in books and movies that people seem to be wholly good or wholly bad. I think it’s perfectly possible to be a good man Monday to Friday and then, one terrible Saturday, to do something bad that haunts you for the rest of your life.
In the latest novel the sense of a public gripped by pro-Nazi hysteria and anti-Nazi fear is palpable – and Gunther is revealed to have had a Jewish grandparent. What made you include this aspect?
Being a quarter Jew is of no real import to Bernie until the Nazis might make it so. None of us really know what we are. My own father was illegitimate, so I have no idea about a quarter of me. But what does it matter?
But by concealing it, before he meets a Jewish woman he falls in love with, I wanted him to feel a certain sense of shame about having covered up his small Jewishness.
It is rare in crime novels for the state to be revealed as the biggest criminal, and it instantly makes the work “political”. Was that something that frightened you as a novelist?
When I first started writing these books I hadn’t really considered all that they might become. Most crime novels have a small parochial crime at their heart. I can never see why people bother caring who killed Agatha Christie’s Roger Ackroyd.
But these novels are set against the background of the crime of the millennium. It all seems to matter much more.
What sort of reactions have you had from German readers?
The books are read and enjoyed in Germany. Now that we’ve moved into the 21st century, we can have some perspective about what happened and we can face up to some unpalatable things about ourselves.
The people who committed these crimes were not monsters but essentially human. This is what human beings can do to other human beings, and that ought to make us rather more vigilant about it happening again.
We British are very good at occupying moral high ground and judging Germans when the reality is that our own imperial past makes us guilty of genocides of our own.
What the British did in India after the 1857 Mutiny for example was almost as bad as what the SS did in the Ukraine and Poland. All nations have these skeletons in their closets.
If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr, is published by Quercus, £17.99 and is available from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848 » www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk