The One from the Other: A Bernie Gunther Novel
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Fifteen years ago author Philip Kerr created the character of Bernie Gunther, a German detective in Nazi Germany. In quick succession, he produced three Chandleresque novels with this fascinating central character. Much awaited, this is the fourth, set just at war's end. Brilliantly plotted, it is also disconcertingly accurate in dramatizing the escape channels of fleeing Nazis and those who abetted them.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Excellent...stylish...a joy to read." -- Publishers Weekly
"Grim and gripping, with all the author's customary sure-handedness in evidence." -- Kirkus Reviews
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Philip Kerr was born in Scotland in 1956 and lives in London with his wife and their three children. He is the author of 14 books (and 4 kids' books). The first 3 in this series are published by Penguin in one volume as Berlin Noir: March Violets; The Pale Criminal; A German Requiem.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
I reach Philip Kerr at home in London, where it's already Saturday afternoon. "Your hero is a surprise -- a Nazi-era German detective, a skeptic who dislikes the regime. But when the Nazis take power and absorb the police into the SS, he goes along initially. How did you come up with this risky, unusual hero?"
"I think it was a case almost of method acting. I was trying to project myself into the character. And as far as I could see, policemen who were opposed to the Nazis had little choice. If they resisted, they found themselves out in the street, or worse -- shot, imprisoned. It's a very tricky tightrope to walk for anyone with a strong sense of morality. And that was what I was interested in writing about: someone trying to remain true to himself, to morality and, at the same time, survive."
"You were born after the war, so you had no personal familiarity. Were there still echoes of it in England?"
"It was only ten years afterward and it was a defining moment in British history, so the echoes when I was a child were very loud."
"Was there rationing, bomb craters, that sort of thing?"
"No, no, there was nothing like that at all. You could have easily believed there never had been a war. No, I mean, the awareness was really to do with people, the things you read in the papers, and comic books full of British wartime adventures. The fiction being published was about the war as well, much more so than in America. I think that it never touched the Americans at home the way it affected British people. Although I didn't experience the war, it was certainly one of the most important influences in my growing up. Because there was so much of it around: talk about it, writing about it, pictures of it, movies."
"Did your agent Caradoc King, at A.P. Watt, talk you into it, or is your long-time editor in the States, Marian Wood, the person to be credited with your going back to writing a fourth Detective Gunther novel?"
"No, actually I think I'm the one. For years friends and colleagues have been saying, 'When are you going to write another one?' After a while I forgot why I stopped writing them. I think it had to do with my not wanting to fall into the trap of sticking with a [single] detective. It seems to me that after a while authors can start wearing their character like a rather old smelly dressing gown. You almost think they're too comfortable wearing it. I persuaded myself I should strike out a bit, take a few more risks, do something different. Then, as the years went by, I thought, well, it might be interesting to write another one, and write it from the point of view of an older detective who had come through the war and has quite a few skeletons in his cupboard. Rather than just bolt another plot on to the end of him."
"You're moving along through Bernie, through his history, quite rapidly. There are pretty big jumps in terms of Bernie Gunther's life, one novel to the next."
"That's true, but it's also very true of Germans of that generation. I think there are gaps."
"Do you speak German? Did you spend a lot of time in Germany?"
"I haven't spent a lot of time in Germany. I trained as a lawyer and I did a postgraduate degree in German law. Really it was an excuse to read philosophy, because I never felt I'd had much of an undergraduate education. And that led me to writing about the whole Nazi period."
"The details are so convincing. Are the streets correct; the nightclubs, were they there?"
"Oh, yes, basically. Rather than paint in broad brush strokes, I'd rather be like a painter who put in little spots of color that didn't mean much close up, but when you took a step or several steps back, you could see the picture. I think small things make big things."
"Were there any writers who inspired you?"
"[Raymond] Chandler and [Dashiell] Hammett. They're more spiritual influences. They're pretty much the only detective writers I've read. It seems to me they were novelists, not detective writers [per se]. I had a fun game with myself when I first started writing about Bernie Gunther. I thought, well, Chandler went to school in England, and then he went to live in Los Angeles. I'd ask myself, what kind of books would Chandler have written if he'd gone to live in Berlin instead of Los Angeles. So that was my kick off, my starting point. The great thing about Chandler is, you can taste and feel and smell the city of Los Angeles while you're reading. I set myself the near impossible task of doing the same with Berlin."
"Critics invoke Raymond Chandler quite often in connection with your work."
"It's a flattering comparison and one I am happy to enjoy. He's a master stylist. Also a wonderfully funny writer as well -- the wise cracks, and the comparisons, the wonderful similes. It's often overlooked that he was at the same school [in England] as [the great British humorist] P.G. Wodehouse."
"In your latest book, a 'ratline' plays a major role. What is a ratline?"
"There were several varieties. They were just ways of getting Nazis out of Germany at the end of the war. Some were operated by the CIA, some by the German army or the SS themselves. One or two were worked by the forerunner of the Russian KGB. The British Secret Service had their own as well. And the Catholic church seemed to be involved too, in a number of them. A lot of the accusations of the church's complicity in Nazism relate to that."
"When did you decide to turn from the law and try your hand at writing?"
"I never really wanted to be a lawyer. I became one really just to please my father. I think that's how most young men become lawyers; I can't think of a better reason." He laughs. "In my case, I knew pretty soon. I wanted to be a writer from about the age of ten. But, you know, your father tells you writers don't make a living, stuff like that. So finally you think, I suppose I should go to university and become a lawyer. I always hoped one day I'd find a career that would enable me to spend at lot of time home, writing. I knew law wasn't going. So I got out of it quickly and became a copywriter at an advertising agency."
"Did you do a lot of promotional writing before?"
"Mostly it was a day job. As far as I was concerned, I was like a prisoner digging an escape tunnel in Stalag 17. Quite often I'd be in the office supposedly working on a piece of copy and actually writing my novel."
"Now it can be told." We both laugh. "Contrary to your father's fears, you did really well. You've produced 18 books by my count; 4 are Bernie Gunthers."
"Yeah. And I'm just about starting a fifth."
"And a good many of your novels have been sold to movie makers by Bob Bookman at CAA in Los Angeles."
"Lots sold, very few made. I've been lucky in the sense that I've actually been paid. The best kind of Hollywood experience to have. You get paid well and you don't suffer the ignominy of seeing what you've written reduced to a joke on screen. Which has happened to a couple of friends of mine. I've always regarded Hollywood as a bit of an arts council grant. It has enabled me to keep going. As far as Hollywood, I've learned the best thing really is to forget all about it."
"Does anybody own the film rights to the Bernie Gunther series?"
"They were bought [outright] a few years ago by a German film producer. Ever since, he's been looking for an international co-producer."
"Do you read a great deal? Is that how you learned to write?"
"Yes. In the beginning I read a lot more than I do now. Most of what I read these days has something to do with and informs what I'm writing. It tends to be nonfiction."
"Your fourth mystery, A Philosophical Investigation, published in the States by a prestigious literary house, Farrar Straus & Giroux. How did that come about?"
"I'd written three sort of macho novels, and I thought it would be nice to write a book from the point of view of a female. Also, I was sort of flummoxed by the huge crime writing industry. Much of it seems to just repeat itself. And, in a sense, that novel was my own investigation into the phenomenon of crime writing and why people like reading about murders, and why people continue to write them."
"Some of your other work has futuristic elements -- almost science fiction. Where does that particular thrust come from? Do you have an interest in science fiction?"
"Not really. It comes from the idea that, since you're writing fiction, it's fun to make everything up, not just the story, and to make it sound plausible. It's sort of pure creative writing: entering a world that doesn't exist and making it sound like one which we live in."
"You try for a very serious level in your themes -- nearly Philip K. Dick [whose work inspired the films Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report ]."
"Him I've read and much admire. Maybe that's where some of it comes from."
"You're married to novelist Jane Thynne. What's it like living with another writer?"
"I'm not naturally gregarious, where she is. She likes to be with people; I don't much. So I've got the perfect career for me. I don't really have to stir from my hole."
"So you're a curmudgeon," I interrupt, "and she's down at the Groucho (Club, London's publishing hangout)."
He laughs. "Yes. Also, I've found having a good time gets in the way of writing; hangovers have to be recovered from. Late nights out aren't good for writers. I follow John Updike's advice to live like a doctor or dentist -- go in your study and keep office hours. You get a lot more done that way. I enjoy going out and having a good time; my capacity for it is pretty large. All the same, I suffer from a Scottish Protestant work ethic, and I feel guilt. This summer is the first I've taken off completely since I started. I had three months when I didn't actually write anything at all. If I'm not doing it, I don't know really how to define myself. I only feel properly myself when I'm actually writing a book."
G.P. Putnam's Sons: A Marian Wood Book, 2006, 372 pages, $26.95