One of the givens in detective fiction these days is that the sleuth should be deeply flawed. You almost expect, as you pry open the pages of the latest overnight sensation to discover that the inspector in question is an internet troll who gets in fights at closing time and closes his eyes to the excesses of the English Defence League while somehow remaining sympathetic and miles better than his boss, who imagines that proper procedure and pins in the board are the way to solve crime.
It would be stretching things, even so, to imagine that we might get behind a Berlin detective – known as a ‘bull’ – who happens to be the go-to man for most of the Nazi hierarchy in wartime Germany. Do we really want to be pals with a womanising sleuth who spends time solving cases on behalf of Himmler, Göring and (my particular favourite) Reinhard Heydrich?
Well, apparently we do. I certainly do. Bernie Gunther is that sleuth, trusted and relied upon by everyone from the Führer to Berlin’s post-war occupiers, both Soviet and Allied, as well as Adolf Eichmann, on the run in post-war Argentina. The New York Times once described Gunther as ‘the right kind of hero for his time … and ours’ – a comment that says as much about the current political climate in America as about democracy in the Third Reich. His desperate attempts to remain honest and do his job while being at the beck and call of some of the worst villains in history are simultaneously an exercise, on an industrial scale, in self-deception and moral courage. Should Gunther have been hanged at Nuremberg or – in the manner of Werner von Braun being made head of the U.S. space programme – appointed Director of the CIA? The jury is out and likely to remain so.
Ghosted by Philip Kerr, among the finest contemporary British novelists and an absolute master of his craft, Gunther’s memoirs have been building steadily since book one, March Violets, appeared in 1989. Volume nine, A Man Without Breath – the title taken from Joseph Goebbels’s estimation of the plight of a nation without belief – came out earlier this year and is as good as any in the series, which is saying a lot.
It is March 1943, Gunther is despatched by Göbbels to investigate the circumstances of the massacre by the Soviets in Katyn Forest three years previously of thousands of Polish officers and intellectuals. Bernie is told that if he can prove the slaughter was ordered by Stalin, the Allies might turn against the Russians and fight alongside Germany. But will our hero fulfil his brief? I leave it to you, dear reader, to discover the complexities of the truth.
Never has a Kripo inspector – later turned private investigator – had such odds to overcome in the pursuance of his duty. As you would expect, Gunther does not emerge from the wreckage of Berlin in 1945 with entirely clean hands. For a start, when sent to the Eastern Front after the invasion of Russia, he took part, however reluctantly, in the extermination of Jews and other undesirables, operating alongside the SS. When you have that in your c.v., how hard can it be to spend time with Heyrdich in Prague, investigating a squalid little in-house murder while turning a blind eye to the Reich Protector’s treatment of the Czechs?
And yet and yet … Bernie Gunther is indeed a kind of hero. He has to ask himself the question every day that the rest of us know we would have faced if the Wehrmacht had conquered Britain and informed us that the common law had been replaced by the Nuremberg decrees. Would we comply or would we take up arms, knowing that the Gestapo would almost certainly have the final word? In France, where collaboration was the default position, the Vichy government ordered the police and gendarmerie to round up the Jews and send them off to the East. They did so, mostly without demur. Thousands of ordinary citizens joined the paramilitary Milice and when not tormenting the Jews did their best to expose those of their countrymen and women who had joined the Resistance.
Would we have been any different? I doubt it. Foyle, of Foyle’s War, might easily have ended up as the English Bernie Gunther.
At any rate, while privately holding the Nazi leadership in contempt, Gunther is obliged, as much out of fear of the guillotine as concern for everyday decencies, to do the bidding of his masters. He does his best to minimise their injustices and, along the way, helps whoever he can. But at the end of the day, he does what he is told, knowing that the alternative will be a set of electrodes attached to his testicles.
Philip Kerr takes us into the heart of darkness with the certainty of a writer who knows that nothing is what it seems and that circumstances, not free will, are often what determine how a life will go. Would the membership of the EDL have joined the English Milice? Of course they would. Would local authorities have distributed Stars of David to the Jews of the East End? Undoubtedly. Would Fabian of the Yard have worked under the direction of the Gauleiter of London? I fear he would.
I should add that Bernie is deliciously brought to life in the nine volumes of this still unfolding series. We see glimpses of the officer he would have been if Hitler had not risen to power – enjoying the demi-monde of the Weimar years, conscious always of the failings and foibles of his colleagues and of the propensity of any officer, himself included, to behave badly when it suits him to do so.
Bernie Gunther is one of us. He is one of all of us. In him, Kerr has created a fictional immortal, whose grim investigations into the very worst of the human experience must one day be brought to the big screen, or, better yet, to prime-time television. Read him and be glad that you did not have to make his choices. Hardly any of us would have had the strength.
Start with Berlin Noir, a collection of the first three volumes, published by Penguin and available at all good bookshops and every internet terminal.
Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr is published by Penguin (£16.99)
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