The Bernie Gunther PI novels constitute one of the most consistently entertaining historical crime series out there and Metropolis is a fitting swan song. Intelligent and brilliantly evocative of Weimar Germany, this thriller is stylish and characteristically playful. It is deeply insightful of human nature, the aftermath of war on society and the psychopathy of the coming Nazi era. As a mystery, Metropolis is as accomplished and crafted as anything you are likely to read this year.
When Philip Kerr burst onto the British crime fiction scene in the early 90s with the first Bernie Gunther novel his writing was a like a breath of fresh air; bold, insightful and original. After the first three superb novels, collectively known as Berlin Noir, Kerr moved on from Bernie Gunther, writing several literary novels and thrillers on various themes and topics. Fortunately, fifteen years later he returned to the PI and we got to follow his war-time and post-war experience – Gunther became an anti-hero crime fiction legend. Chronologically, Greeks Bearing Gifts (2018) was the last of his splendid adventures, it felt final, Bernie facing up to his role in the war as a way of moving on. Now Metropolis takes Bernie Gunther back to the beginning, to the year he joined the murder squad, 1928. The story in Metropolis has been referred to in some of the other novels along the way so Kerr must have been planning this return for a long while. I suspect he also wanted to revel in the extraordinary time and place that was Weimar Berlin; a city in equal part a model of decadent freedom and grotesque nightmare. Metropolis has humour, a sense of history, moral dilemma and top notch crime solving. The hunt for a serial killer at the heart of the novel allows Gunther to explore the darkness of the city, the mood of the age, and his own understanding of who he is too. As always, Kerr takes complex themes and story lines and evolves them into fast moving and classy entertainment. Sadly Kerr died last year and, although it is not the most important loss, his writing will be missed – Metropolis is, however, a superb way to sign off. There have been many who have taken inspiration or imitated Kerr but no one has got close to Bernie Gunther yet.
Metropolis has the classic feel of a noir novel, a hard-boiled detective story. Gunther is not quite so cynical because this is the younger more inexperienced detective. He refers to himself as an expert in vice, the department he has been working, but is his judgement just that of a brash young man?
“I knew almost as much about vice as Gilles de Rais.” He quips.
Yet, young as Gunther is, Kerr still manages to reveal nuances and aspects of his character that we haven’t seen before. The traits that will later make Bernie the flawed, scarred man he becomes. One of the outstanding feature of Kerr’s writing is the depth of character that has been evident in all of the Gunther novels. For Kerr, it has always been about Bernie Gunther’s character, his moral ambiguity, and the important questions he faces in life. In the Berlin Noir trilogy Gunther was a detective under a totalitarian regime. During the war he worked for the Nazis, for Heydrich, in very dubious circumstances – what choice did he have? After the war he was forced to adopt new identities to avoid paying for his crimes and for crimes he did not commit. In Metropolis Gunther is an inchoate murder detective; the things he sees will change him, it happens in front of us as the book progresses. We also see from his first cases Gunther always sought to follow his own path in his investigations. Morally, he’s a more straightforward character, but do we believe him when he tells his boss he can follow orders? His personal life is already complicated. At one point he condones the brutal treatment of a witness weighing that crime against the possibility of catching a killer with the evidence retrieved from the witness. Add in the political climate, the degradation of war and once again Kerr takes complex moral and philosophical themes, food for thought, by then he presents them as top notch entertainment.
Kerr has always been playful in his writing, he make in jokes in Metropolis. He also likes to reference other art forms, other works. In Metropolis he takes us into the culture of the age. From great artists (Grosz and Dix) and film makers (Lang) to low rent cabarets and to the German love of Karl May’s cowboy potboilers. From the sublime to the bizarre and ridiculous Kerr is an explorer on our behalf; the streets, the bars, the police stations, the viewing room of the Berlin morgue (open to the public), and the cabaret of the nameless (which Kerr likens to Pop Idol where the talentless are encouraged to entertain an unappreciative audience).
It’s not easy to return to a character in an earlier guise; to strip out the knowledge, the years and the character arc, the relationships, the events, removing the cynicism and some of the moral ambiguity, even taking the blood off Gunther’s hands. Kerr achieves this brilliantly and although it appears seamless I am sure it was a lot of work. As this is 1928 we are re-introduced to Gunther younger than we ever remember him.
Metropolis opens with Gunther leaving the vice squad for the heady heights of the homicide squad. This is one of the most progressive police departments not only in Berlin but in all Europe. The emergence of this superb anti-hero is set against the rise of Nazism and the politicisation of the police, the conflict with the Communists and the tumultuous shifts in European politics. But equally, Metropolis is about the past, the effects of the war. The men who didn’t return, the injured and maimed, the poverty and hunger, the damaged people and those who think life is for living to the max after the trauma of the terrible conflagration and the flu epidemic. Berlin is a cosmopolitan city, a city of contrasts, of poverty and wealth. A Babylon of the destitute and the depraved, a temple of diversity and of sexual excess. The hunters and the prey, the tourists who enjoy the sexual freedom and ordinary people who sell themselves in order to eat (look out for the Thomas Cook charabanc). This is one of Kerr’s finest sketches of a country and time and he has nailed it perfectly.
Gunther gets the vacant seat in the murder wagon (a travelling murder room). His boss Gerhard Weiss, chief of the criminal police, is Jewish, it doesn’t bother Gunther but it is an issue for the force. Gunther works for Ernst Gennat, the great detective. There are plenty of ordinary crimes but there is also a serial killer on the loose. Everyone calls him Winnetou, after the Apache hero in the Karl May novels, because he scalps his female victims. Gunther begins by bringing himself up to date on the murders but it isn’t long before a new victim is discovered. Then a new case takes precedence, Dr. Gnadenschuss (coup de grace) mocks the police and takes the attention from the dead prostitutes by executing disabled begging war veterans on their ‘klutz’ wagons outside the city train stations. Gunther absorbs information like a sponge, he is developing his teflon sense of humour and his own full blown theories for how the investigations should proceed. Along the way Gunther is courted by Nazi screenwriters and his future boss, mass murderer, Arthur Nebe, by femme fatales and by rebellious souls. He refers to one woman as:
“Elegant as Occam’s razor and just as sharp.”
Kerr introduces the idea of listening to the victims as a way of giving them a voice. Gunther practices this enthusiastically with the dead women (it’s a progressive idea that first gained traction at that time). Metropolis is first-rate storytelling, deftly plotted and fiercely intelligent. I’m going to miss Bernie Gunther, because the wise cracking Marlowesque detective is peerless.
There is a lovely heartfelt introduction by Ian Rankin to the novel.
Paul Burke 5/5
Metropolis by Philip Kerr
Quercus 9781787473218 hbk Apr 2019