Tuesday, 28 December 2010

If the Dead Rise Not; Philip Kerr

In the early 1990s, Philip Kerr wrote three books about Bernie Gunther, a detective in pre-war and immediately post-war Berlin. The first two, March Violets and The Pale Criminal, were quite straightforward private eye noir; the third one, Berlin Requiem, was a much more complicated and depressing piece of work. Then Kerr stopped writing about Bernie Gunther and went off and wrote a bunch of thrillers which could fairly be described as high-concept books that don't quite pay off. The ideas were interesting, but the characters weren't and the writing was too pedestrian to read for enjoyment. I bought most of those books and discarded them all as soon as I'd read them. Generally with a mild feeling of annoyance that I had bothered to finish them.

A few years ago, Kerr decided to go back to his first break and revive Bernie Gunther, and If The Dead Rise Not is the third of the new sequence of books. It leaves me scratching my head a bit.

Raymond Chandler, who's not only the pope of the detective noir, but one of the few detective story writers living or dead who can be read again and again for just the pleasure of the prose, defined the template of the noir detective:

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

In the first two books, Gunther is the epitome of this trope, albeit not as well written as anything by Chandler; very little in this world is as well written as Chandler. The books have twisty plots which are in their essence straightforward; a bad deed has been done, the detective takes chances to find the truth of it, but at the end true justice will elude him. The clever twist in the books is in the setting; pre-war Hitler's Germany; streets don't get much meaner than the wide boulevards of the pre-war Reich. No matter how triumphant a moral victory your detective achieves, the vast moral defeat underway will overshadow it.

Because Kerr is an ambitious writer and not content to recycle the same plot with unchanging characters, he took a big chance with the third book, Berlin Requiem, and showed us Gunther after a second experience of war had chewed him up and spat him out into post-war Berlin. Very few cities have ever been worked over as thoroughly and with as little regret as Berlin was in the fall of the Reich, and I doubt that it's possible to write a book set in that milieu without creating a thoroughly depressing experience for the reader. Even allowing for that, Berlin Requiem is grim going. I think when Kerr wrote it, he intended it to be the last word on the character, and to some extent on what Germany did to itself between 1932 and 1945.

But writers get older and come back to things with second thoughts, and over the past few years, Kerr has come back to the character and started filling in the blanks. It must be quite interesting for someone who's only discovering the books now all in one lump, because it's not just Bernie's backstory which is getting filled in; all sorts of other side characters are being given deeper histories, and if you'd just read the first two books in the past couple of years and then read the more recent ones, you'd probably be having all kinds of ah-ha moments as Bernie encounters characters who were passing presences in the earlier books. Since I haven't read the earlier books in more than a decade and gave them away a while ago to my sister, I just had the feeling that various intros should have had more resonance for me.

I've bought each of the newer books as they've become available, but finished each with the realisation that my curiousity about what Bernie's been getting up to wasn't the same as a real interest in the character; once I knew roughly what he'd been at, I wasn't going to feel any real need to come back and look at it again later. It was as I read this book that I realised that I'd be perfectly fine with some kind of wikipedia article which just set out the life and times of Bernie Gunther in summary form. It's partly that Bernie isn't much fun to be with, and it's partly that it's getting harder and harder to buy into his story as Kerr unfolds more and more layers to it.

There's a fundamental clash between two things that Kerr is trying to do with Bernie. On the one hand, he's trying to depict the gradual collapse of his character as misfortunes and compromises accumulate, and on the other hand he's sketching in the byways of the less remembered parts of the 20th century as Bernie Zeligs his way into various setpieces. Unfortunately, the second hand requires the kind of contrivance and coincidence which looks preposterous  against the background of a realistically drawn character. In the first couple of new books, Kerr's more or less gotten away with it, because through clever plotting and the nature of his milieu, he could create plausible scenarios where the vibration of history would tend to shake all the pebbles into one corner of the box; it didn't strain credulity too much that Bernie would, for example, run into Eichmann by chance before the war, and then run into him again when both are on the run as wanted Nazis. In If the Dead Rise Not, there isn't the same credibility to the way he runs into the same group of people in both pre-Olympics Berlin and pre-Castro Cuba.

Niels Bohr once recorded his doubts about a hypothesis by saying that it wasn't crazy enough to be true, and in a way that's Kerr's problem; he wants to pull off something bold and impressive and yet truthful, and the impulse to keep it real and down to earth is blowing it all apart for him. Bernie Gunther is like Zelig or Flashman, a spectator at all the big stuff. And Zelig and Flashman work because the writer knows that the idea is ridiculous and piles on at top speed anyway. The very idea CAN'T be realistic, and there's no point in trying to make it so. And the more you try to make everything else realistic, the more you undercut your central premise.

And it's hard to get away from my nagging feeling that it would have been so much easier to keep it simple, and just not bother with the Cuban bit at all. Kerr's always struck me as a guy who writes to a plan, rather than letting things unfold in his mind and write them down as they occur to him, and in the Gunther renaissance, the common thread has been that the books have parts set in pre-war Berlin (where not only Bernie, but Kerr the successful writer, began) and parts set in the 40s and 50s, after the war has destroyed everything that Bernie thought he knew about himself and left him struggling to stay ahead of the consequences of his mistakes. So If the Dead Rise Not had to have that structure, but it's skewed and unbalanced, and doesn't have the symmetry (however forced) of the other two recent books. There's not enough in the Cuban episode to balance the Berlin episode, and the links between them don't feel strong enough or believable enough. Simply put, the book would have been better if Kerr had rounded off the Berlin segment properly and abandoned the grand design.



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