Dark days

Philip Kerr turns the Nazi era into riveting, morally complicated fiction.

Philip Kerr turns the Nazi era into riveting, morally complicated fiction

Scottish novelist Philip Kerr is best known for his Second World War crime thrillers featuring German ex-cop Bernhard Gunther, who is featured in the latest Kerr novel, A Quiet Flame. ((Lindsey Parnaby/Penguin Books))

If you were to create a marketing campaign for the detective novel, you would want to advertise its most sensational attributes: raucous gunplay, punchy dialogue and hot, risky sex. While not averse to those pleasures, connoisseurs of this literary genre also love it for its delicious ambiguities — the shifting loyalties and, shall we say, flexible nature of right and wrong.

'People who are evil are never wholly evil, and people who are good are never actually completely good. Everybody does things that they are ashamed of.'—Philip Kerr on his conflicted German anti-hero, Bernie Gunther

Wading through the ethical muck is the modus operandi for German detective Bernie Gunther, the grizzled anti-hero of Philip Kerr’s latest novel, A Quiet Flame. The fifth book in a captivating series, A Quiet Flame tracks the Nazi-era gumshoe to Argentina in 1950, where he ends up working for President Juan Peron.

First introduced in Kerr’s novel March Violets (1989), Gunther came to prominence as a police inspector in 1930s Berlin – a moral swamp if ever there was one. He eventually went freelance. A great source of tension in Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy — which includes The Pale Criminal (1990) and A German Requiem (1991) — is the way that Gunther navigates the Nazi power structure (SS, Gestapo) in his idealistic attempt to solve crimes. It’s an ugly milieu that Kerr depicts, but also utterly fascinating.

"I didn’t set out to write a crime novel," says the Scottish novelist during a recent phone interview, reflecting on March Violets. Having done a post-graduate degree in German philosophy, Kerr says he wanted "to do a book on the period, the time, the place and, in a sense, explain it to myself, what it was like to be an ordinary German."

(Penguin Books)

He says he arrived at the mystery genre by dint of the detective work he had to do to recreate the era. Kerr ended up "imagining what kind of novel Raymond Chandler would have written if, instead of leaving Britain to live in L.A., he’d gone to live in Berlin."

The books in the Gunther series are gorgeously written, with lots of salty banter, chilling cameos (by figures like Goebbels, Himmler and Julius Streicher) and vivid detail (from authentic slang to period-specific street names). Like Chandler’s famous hero, Philip Marlowe, Bernie Gunther is a hard-headed, tough-talking loner. But by the nature of his circumstances, Gunther is a much more complicated creation.

Witty and relatable, he is also deeply conflicted. His investigations of murders and missing-persons cases in the Third Reich inevitably bring him into contact with all sorts of Nazi stooges, some more vile than others. In order to solve his cases, he has to trade some pretty dubious favours. Gunther is thoroughly opposed to Nazi ideology, but being an able-bodied German male, he eventually ends up fighting on its behalf. Perhaps the most intriguing mystery in Kerr’s series is the exact nature of Gunther’s wartime service. (Through a smattering of judicious hints, Kerr suggests it was on the eastern front, in the Ukraine.)

Although troubled by Germany’s descent into madness, Gunther is quite skilled at self-preservation. After surviving the postwar predations of the "Amis" (the Americans), the hostility of the "Ivans" (the Soviets) and the vigilantism of Jewish revenge squads in The One from the Other (2006), Gunther finds himself on a boat to Argentina. His reluctant travel partner is none other than Adolf Eichmann, considered by many to be the architect of the Holocaust. Both find refuge in Argentina through the efforts of ODESSA, a shadowy network believed to have resettled former Nazis in South America and the Middle East.

"I never wanted to make [Gunther] a completely white knight, because that was a cop-out," Kerr says. "It’s much more interesting to have a morally ambiguous character who’s walking a tightrope all the time between what would have kept him out of prison then, but what doesn’t offend us now as readers."

Says Kerr, "I tend to fall into the belief that people who are evil are never wholly evil, and people who are good are never actually completely good. Everybody does things that they are ashamed of."

(Penguin Books)

For its evocation of a sinister period in Argentine history, A Quiet Flame may be Kerr’s most provocative book yet. Juan Peron was an unabashed admirer of Nazism and after the Second World War, provided refuge to more than 8,000 German war criminals. Years before Peron came to power, the country’s foreign minister issued Directive 11, an official, if secret, means of keeping Jewish refugees out of Argentina.

Thanks to his reputation back home as a steely detective, Gunther gets work with Peron’s secret police, under the pretext of state security. But it’s only a paycheque. Out of a sense of moral duty, of wanting somehow to atone for the horrors of Hitler, Gunther begins investigating the disappearance of a Jewish family in Buenos Aires. Gunther ends up locating a hive of Nazi nasties — and then stumbles upon something even more nefarious. Without giving away the book’s climax, let me just say that Kerr’s feat of creative license is terrifying enough to be true. The author is unapologetic about his damning portrait of postwar Argentina.

"The Argentines, unlike the Germans, have been extremely conscientious in razing all their records" about Nazi complicity, Kerr says. "They had at least three different regimes that went back and said, ‘If there’s any [evidence] left, get rid of it.’"

The novelist has already completed the next book in the series, If the Dead Rise Not, which finds Gunther swept onto the island of Cuba. Kerr is guarded about plot details, but admits he’s still smitten with Gunther.

"I’ve enjoyed making this character just a little bit less heroic than people have been used to — that’s what gives him life, makes him a sympathetic character, but makes him interesting to write about. You can’t really believe in people who are totally heroic."

A Quiet Flame is in stores now.

Andre Mayer writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.