Reviewed by Max Dunbar
Swan Song (For A City)
Stephen King once wrote of the ‘Grey Havens’ as a kind of afterlife where fictional characters can relax after their authors die or finish their stories. I had the idea that he got this from Tolkien, but a Wiki search brings up the place as a fantasy location rather than authorial concept.
Which is a shame, because if any fictional character would benefit from the rest and care of the Havens it would be Bernie Gunther. Over the course of fourteen historical novels, we’ve watched him transform from young Weimar homicide cop to reluctant Third Reich fixer and SS man: followed him through World War Two, into concentration camps, prisons and gulags, and kept up with his fugitive life around Europe and Latin America under a variety of false names. At the end of the last novel, Greeks Bearing Gifts, there was a sense that Gunther was finally on the verge of redemption. I was looking forward to finding out about all this but Kerr doesn’t return to it in Metropolis, the author’s last novel before he died. Like Flashman’s US Civil War papers, Bernie’s truth-and-reconciliation espionage has been lost to the Grey Havens.
In Metropolis Kerr takes us further back in Bernie’s life than we have ever been before, to the late 1920s, when he was a fledgling detective on Berlin’s Murder Commission. In some respects the character doesn’t change – he’s always the handsome, sensual cynic in every book – but this is recognisably a younger, rawer Bernie, with some idealism or at least an acute moral sense. Soon after promotion to the murder wagon, he begins having flashbacks to his time in the first world war, and starts drinking so much that even other Berlin detectives remark on it. Bernie disapproves of Berlin’s public morgue where passers by can stroll in and gawp at murder victims. He sneaked into the morgue when he was a schoolboy, and knows that some doors can’t be unopened.
In most of the Gunther books the Nazis are in charge. Bernie works directly for Goebbels, Eichmann and other Third Reich villains. They let him live because he was useful in cleaning up political messes (and perhaps because some, like Heydrich, found him entertaining). But Kerr never lets us forget Bernie’s complicity in war crimes, or that his next wisecrack could be his last. The Bernie Gunther of Metropolis can hold his head higher – he’s on the side of the angels, working murders for the brilliant intellectual cop Bernhard Weiss (a real detective, who fled Germany days before Hitler became Chancellor). In 1928 the NSDAP aren’t a terrifying dictatorship, just a toxic force in politics that needs to be managed. There are many instances where political considerations impact policework. The government of Metropolis chooses to indulge the activist far right rather than confront them, and so the sense of complicity remains.
This is Berlin. Gunther has a drink with George Grosz, sits for a portrait by Otto Dix, watches the Threepenny Opera, and even gets fried in the electric chair of the notorious Sing Sing club, a cabaret bar themed on America’s death row. The city teems with art, booze and sex, and with people getting on with their lives. Inflation has been stabilised and it’s a peaceful time, but as so often in democracies, people don’t know they’re born. Wherever Bernie goes he hears moaning about the noise, the whores, the beggars; nostalgia for a lost country and vague hopes for ‘things to be sorted out’ and ‘something to be done’.
He is tracking two serial killers, one who murders prostitutes, the other who murders disabled war veterans. The veteran killer calls himself ‘Dr Gnadenschuss’ – sort of a German word for the mercy shot. In a letter to a Berlin newspaper Gnadenschuss writes that ‘The men I shot were dead already and I was merely putting them out of their very obvious misery; while they existed they were not only a disgrace to the uniform, they also reminded everyone of the shame of Germany’s defeat… I have only done what needs to be done if Germany is to begin to rebuild itself’. There is also an excerpt of a speech given by commissioner Arthur Nebe to the Prussian police federation, the Schrader-Verband:
Foreigners flock here with their dollars and pounds to take advantage not just of our weakened reichsmark, but also of our women and our liberal laws regarding sex. Berlin especially has become the new Sodom and Gomorrah. All right-thinking Germans should feel the same way as I and yet this government of Jews and apologists for Bolshevism does nothing but sit on its gold-ringed fingers and feed the people lies about how wonderful things really are. These are terrible people. They really are. They lie all the time. But there is, thank God, one man who promises to tell the truth and to clean up this city, to wash the filth off Berlin’s streets, the scum you see every night: the drug dealers, prostitutes, pimps, transvestites, queers, Jews and communists. That man is Adolf Hitler.
‘When I started writing I was after the character of the Berliner rather than the history of Berlin,’ Kerr explained. ‘Berlin people have always been awkward-squad Germans, which is probably why I admire them. Hitler didn’t like them at all, and Berliners are the same now as then – they haven’t changed.’ Gunther meets all kinds of people in Metropolis, gangsters and celebrities and cripples, and their dialogue is a constant ironic badinage. But there’s never a sense of tiredness or laziness in Kerr’s prose: it’s not the irony of cynicism or false wiseness, but the irony of humane and inquiring souls. Irony in Bernie’s world is a way to know things, to make connections, to resolve disputes and mediate troubled situations. A cabaret dancer tells Bernie: ‘What peculiar lives we both lead, don’t you think, Bernie?’ And Bernie reflects:
This seemed incontrovertible and not just because of what had happened that evening. Life itself was so fast-moving it was impossible not to feel that sometimes things were completely out of control, like being alone in one of Berlin’s elongated open-topped tourist charabancs as it careered frantically around the metropolis, driverless, taking in the sights, heading towards some unknown peculiar disaster of our own making.
You never know what’s going to happen. We think we are in control, but we are lost to the rushing river of history. ‘We live in a perpetually burning building,’ said Tennessee Williams. Like the heroes and villains he wrote about, Philip Kerr is now part of history. His novels remain.
Max blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com
Philip Kerr, Metropolis, (Quercus, 2019), 978-1787473218, 400pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via affiliate link.