Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Berlin Trilogy: a very short review

Somehow I hadn't heard of the Scottish writer Philip Kerr, who died last year at the far too young age of 62, but when I stumbled across an obituary I decided I'd give his books a try, and picked up Berlin Noir: March Violets; The Pale Criminal; A German Requiem.

Now, there's hard-boiled, and there's hard-boiled. My taste in hard-boiled has mostly tended toward American authors, such as Elmore Leonard, Michael Connolly, James Lee Burke, etc., for I was born a bit too late to ever really pick up Hammett or Spillane or Chandler.

But I've also enjoyed the European style of hard-boiled writing, such as Stieg Larsson's astonishing Millenium trilogy.

So what are we to make of the audacity of a Scottish writer setting his German protagonist squarely in the middle of WWII Berlin?

On the one hand, how much more noir can you possibly get? There's no shortage of villains, no lacking for drama, no need to dream up conditions any harsher or bleaker than these. And Kerr delivers the action! These books are roller-coaster rides of twist-a-minute thriller investigations, punctuated frequently with sex, violence, and way too many all night sessions stumbling from one back-alley location to the next.

On the other hand, what I found most compelling about The Berlin Triology was how tremendously atmospheric they were. Kerr really immerses you in a very specific place and time, and the effect is very powerful. Some of my favorite parts of the books were the places where Kerr manages to artfully take a simple description and slap you across the face in just the right way, letting you see things which are simultaneously beautiful and still cruel.

For example, this visit to a fairly upscale Berlin city square quickly darkens, vividly emphasizing the rapid militarization that was changing the entire literal landscape of the society:

The houses on Herbertstrasse, in any other city but Berlin, would each have been surrounded by a couple of hectares of shrub-lined lawn. But as it was they filled their individual plots of land with little or no space for grass and paving. Some of them were no more than the front-gate's width from the sidewalk. Architecturally they were a mixture of styles, ranging from the Palladian to the neo-Gothic, the Welhelmine and some that were so vernacular as to be impossible to describe. Judged as a whole, Herbertstrasse was like an assemblage of old field-marshals and grand-admirals in full-dress-uniforms obliged to sit on extremely small and inadequate camp stools.

Or this marvelous description of post-war Vienna, that neatly tucks in an acknowledgement of how thoroughly the war had affected the city, even to the extent of the urban plants and animals:

The morning was bright, clear and chilly. Crossing the park in front of the new town hall on my way to the Inner City, a couple of squirrels bounded up to say hello and check me out for breakfast. But before they got close they caught the cloud on my face and the smell of fear on my socks. Probably they even made a mental note of the heavy shape in my coat pocket and thought better of it. Smart little creatures. After all, it wasn't so very long since small mammals were being shot and eaten in Vienna. So they hurried on their way, like living scribbles of fur.

If you're after joy, light, and hope, avoid The Berlin Trilogy, for there is none of that to be found here.

But if you're after a vivid exploration of what it was like, and you're far too young to have been there, The Berlin Trilogy delivers over and over again.

Kerr wrote these three masterpieces in a whirlwind 18 month period from mid-1989 through early 1991, then apparently took a 15 year break, before returning to pick up Bernie Gunther's story again with 8 more books written after 2006, the last one published posthumously.

I'm not sure if I'm going to follow the rest of Gunther's adventures. Maybe I'll take a 15 year break. Lots of other stuff on the shelf, after all.

But I'm not disappointed that I read these.

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