In honor of Philip Kerr’s recent passing, I’ve begun rereading his Berlin Noir novels. I read the first three years ago but the series got up to a near dozen so it will probably take me a year to acquire and read them all. My memory was that, like Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels, they were good-enough crime stories long on atmosphere–that they gained weight from their superb exposition of time and place.
In Kerr’s case, at least in the early novels that meant Berlin between the wars, and closer to the second than the first. His first in the Bernie Gunther series is set in 1936. Well after Hitler had risen to power then, but with the coming war not yet a foregone conclusion.
The oppression, though, is already everywhere and Kerr’s detective goes back and forth between what the most oppressed citizens would have called kvetching…
Corruption in one form or another is the most distinctive feature of life under National Socialism. The government has made several revelations about the corruption of the various Weimar political parties, but these were as nothing compared to the corruption that exists now. It flourishes at the top, and everyone knows it. So most people figure that they are due a share themselves. I don’;t know of anyone who is as fastidious about such things as they used to be. And that includes me. The plain truth of it is that people’s sensitivity to corruption, whether it’s black-market food or obtaining favours from a government official, is about as blunt as a joiner’s pencil stub.
Which–as language, story-telling, social critique–is somewhere between perfect adequacy and modest ineffectiveness.
It all just sort of lays there.
Only to be followed on the very next page with this:
Driving west on Leipzigerstrasse, I met the torchlight parade of Brownshirt legions as it marched south down Wilhelmstrasse, and I was obliged to get out of my car and salute the passing standard. Not to have done so would have been to risk a beating.
Which renders everything in the previous paragraph superfluous.
Not to have done so would have been to risk a beating tells the reader all there is to know about Nightfall–about being deprived of the opportunity to choose.
I’m hoping the man who was good enough to write that second paragraph learned, over time, to disregard whatever impulse led him to write the first.
We shall see.
In any case, R.I.P. It is no small thing to have brought the worst of the past so close you can feel its hot breath, even in the best of times.