Philip Kerr

Quercus, £20.00


William Boyd has said that there are two categories of Scottish writer. “Black Scots” are those, like him, who were born in Scotland but no longer live here. Then there are “Red Scots” who have tended to stick close to the native heath.

Among the former was Philip Kerr, who was born in Edinburgh but lived for most of his life in London where he died last year aged 62. Amidst much of the mediocrity that typifies modern thriller writing, several of Kerr’s novels rise high above the ruck.

His preferred scene is Berlin in the years in which the Nazis seized power, precipitated a global catastrophe and were finally humiliated. His protagonist, like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Hammett’s Sam Spade, is a hard-drinking, tough-talking hombre called Bernie Gunther who first appeared in 1989 in March Violets, the first of a trilogy – its sequels are The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem – in what came to be known as ‘Berlin Noir”. Salman Rushdie hymned Kerr as “brilliantly innovative” and comparisons with Le Carré and Len Deighton were routinely made, not preposterously.

Above all else, Gunther is a survivor. The Linden-lined strassen through which he meanders are as mean as any trodden by his wise-cracking forebears. But what makes this backdrop especially murky is the black cloud of fascist violence that overhangs a city which was once a byword for decadence and which, as the 1930s progress, becomes the world capital of evil. When in March Violets Gunther comes face to face with it in the guise of Goering the conversation turns, bizarrely, to Dashiell Hammett, of whom it transpires the Reichsmarshall – “a big, fat, man-eating tiger” – is a fan, which he probably was. There’s nowt so queer as a sociopath.

Metropolis is the thirteenth novel to feature Gunther. It’s set in 1928 in the aftermath of the federal general election when Hitler’s National Socialist Party won just three per cent of the vote, giving it a mere twelve seats in the Reichstag. Gunther, at the beginning of his career, is invited to join the Murder Commission and told that henceforth his life will never be the same again. “From now on, whenever you stand next to a man at a bus stop or on a train, you’ll be sizing him up as a potential killer.”

It is a promising scenario. Soon our rum-soaked sleuth is on the trail of a killer – or killers – who is scalping prostitutes and plugging maimed veterans of the First World War. “Human life,” we’re told, “stopped having much value after 1914. That was bad enough, but then inflation came along in 1923 and made our money valueless. Life doesn’t matter so very much when you’ve lost everything.” Along the way Gunther is asked to assist in a film to be directed by Fritz Lang and he encounters George Grosz in a morgue where the artist is drawing corpses. Among other things unique to Berlin were a club – the Sing Sing – which had an electric chair and The Cabaret of the Nameless, which Kerr remarks in his author’s note reminded him of Pop Idol.

The Berlin of Metropolis is that which was evoked by Christopher Isherwood in the Sally Bowles stories. There the comparison ends. Where Isherwood wrote beautifully and sparely, Kerr doesn’t leave a fact in the library or an opinion unexpressed. Perhaps the most preposterous scene in the novel is when Gunther interviews a murdered girl, which may be a first for crime fiction. When he tells her that she was killed near to where a few years earlier a serial killer chopped up his victims, she remarks: “Bastards. If you ask me, all men are bastards.” At this, I’m afraid, I laughed, which was surely not the reaction Kerr hoped for. Readers unfamiliar with his earlier books should start with them.