Long before it was fashionable to write detective fiction set in Nazi Germany, Philip Kerr created his Berlin Noir trilogy. That series established an entire genre and inspired a generation of crime writers to set their stories not in Agatha Christie’s golden age of the English upper class but instead in Berlin’s sleazy backstreets. Unlike Alan Furst – whose first Night Soldier novel came out at much the same time as the original Bernie Gunther book in the late 1980s – Kerr wrote crime novels against a wartime backdrop, not spy stories as such.
Bernie himself is no aristocrat engaged in elegant espionage; he’s a streetwise city bull, a proper copper. Bernie’s story spans three decades, from his first murder case in the late 1920s through to his time as a fugitive exile in the 1950s. It’s entirely appropriate that this, the final Gunther book penned by Philip Kerr (and I sincerely hope that the series is allowed to end here) takes place at the start of Bernie’s career in the murder squad. We end at the beginning.
And what a great story to start and finish with. This is Germany before the Nazis take power. National Socialism is a rising force and anti-Semitism is widespread, but fascism hasn’t yet completely corrupted societal norms. A serial killer is murdering prostitutes so Bernie is promoted from the vice squad to the prestigious homicide investigation. Before he can make much headway, another series of killings begins – and this time the victims are crippled war veterans…
Metropolis works perfectly as an historical police procedural, with genuinely intriguing multiple plotlines that are populated by actual characters from the time period. Bernie gets to experiment with the cutting edge of police investigative methods and forensic science, and the trail leads him from high society to underworld mob bosses, via various real-life figures who’ll play a significant role in years to come.
The book’s title is also provocative. It might simply be a reference to the filmmakers peripherally involved in the story – or was Kerr making an oblique reference to the socialist undertones of Fritz Lang’s film?
Yet while the historical detail and criminal investigation are the strong points of Metropolis, Kerr’s writing doesn’t do justice to the intoxicating atmosphere of the hedonistic heyday of Weimar Berlin. Sure, permissive and excessive indulgence has its squalid side – but this Germany was also creative, vibrant and exhilarating. Kerr concentrates instead on the sordid aspects of soiled lives.
Bernie is already jaded, repelled by the decadence around him, fast becoming the cynical misanthrope of the later novels. Fair enough; his experiences in the Great War were enough to scar any psyche. But Kerr’s writing itself is weary; the dialogue is flat, absent snappy asides or subtle insight. The political observations are laboured, and the social commentary feels artificial. Metropolis is a good story, spoiled by stilted storytelling.
This isn’t the best of the Bernie Gunther books, then, but it’s less of a slog than the previous couple which zigzag back and forth across multiple timelines. Not the place to start if you are new to the series: go back to March Violets to meet Bernie at his best.
For established fans of the series, however, Metropolis is an acceptable farewell to old friends.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Metropolis by Philip Kerr is available at Amazon