A posthumous book is always special, a reading that we begin differently, with death between us and the author and the awareness of the non-renewable legacy. Philip Kerr, British figure of the noir novel (but who also worked in children’s literature) died in the spring of 2018, at the age of 62. He finished Metropolis, his last publication, while already suffering from cancer.
Kerr closes there the cycle which made his fame, around Bernie Gunther, German investigator whom he has already directed thirteen times, in a very precise historical context (but not necessarily evoked in a chronological order): from the end of the 1920s at the end of the 1950s. The backdrop is therefore clear: Nazism, its genesis, its rise to power, its reign, its debacle, its upheavals. The epicenter is Berlin.
Kerr was brilliant, very cultured, provocative, ironic, playful. Even though he might fear his own end, he comes full circle with a prequel, Bernie Gunther’s debut as a cop. It was 1928, Bernie officiated at Mœurs when a post of inspector was offered to him at the «Kripo ”, the criminal police, a promotion linked to his service and his temperament: “You are scrupulous and you know how to complete it when it is necessary: an asset for a police inspector.” And Gunther is not a bully, unlike the other cop being considered for the job. And having a Jewish leader is not a problem for him. And he has a good reason for not having obtained the Abitur (equivalent of the baccalaureate): he fought in the Great War (from 14-18) as a volunteer.
War and its ravages are omnipresent in Metropolis, Kerr intertwines them with the notoriously decadent Berlin of the late 1920s, against the backdrop of an already shaky Weimar Republic. But Bernie Gunther defends Berlin, challenges the comparison with Babylon, says: “Today, still ten years after the end of the war, the streets were full of crippled individuals, many of whom still wore their uniforms, who lined up in front of stations and banks. Often the public spaces resembled Brueghel’s paintings. And yet, despite this, Berlin was a wonderful and stimulating city, […] a huge shining mirror held out to the world and therefore a tremendous reflection of existence in all its fascinating splendor for anyone interested in life on earth. “ Bernie is still naive, the rest of history will teach him pessimism, even cynicism.
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Berlin at the end of the 1920s is also a city where prostitutes are killed with a hammer and scalped without moving many people, even though they are mostly the woman next door, a worker who makes the sidewalk to make ends meet. The modus operandi recalls Winnetou the Apache, an ultra popular character created in 1879 by Karl May who put the western in German sauce. And afterwards, it is cripples of the war who are eliminated, with a bullet to the head. All this is very much in line with the state of mind that tends to spread, in the wake of the Nazi Party: we must eliminate the unnecessary, symbols of an intolerable national weakness. The Dr Coup de grace (literally “coup de grace”) wrote in his letter demanding the murders to the newspapers: “For those who see them crawling on the sidewalks like rats or vermin, they are an insult to the eye and the very idea of civic decency. […] A new Germany will not be able to emerge as long as the crippled, ragged and degenerated vestiges of its ignominious past continue to haunt our streets like so many specters. ” But you also have to reckon with the underworld, dirty cops, love stories that end badly, and obvious leads are not the most reliable.
Philip Kerr’s mastery is impressive. A millimetric marquetry work, between intrigue, study of characters, evocation of an era (including from an artistic point of view, it is notably a question of Fritz Lang whose film gives the title of the book) and political-historical analysis irrigated by an ode to democracy. And then, for Bernie Gunther aficionados, there is the pleasure of seeing him build, inexorably move towards the melancholy and tormented being that he will become. The post-traumatic syndrome aspect is particularly successful, with an unexpected almost anti-militarist empathy on the part of Philip Kerr, suddenly less badass than expected.