Sadly, last March British author Philip Kerr passed away. Kerr was a prolific writer of over thirty books, including works of adult fiction and non-fiction, in addition to writing children’s books under the name, P. B. Kerr. At the time of his death he had just completed his last novel entitled, Metropolis, the last iteration of his successful Bernie Gunther series that dealt with German history from the 1920s through the Cold War. Kerr, one of my favorite purveyors of historical fiction consistently laid out his view of Nazism, its effect on Germany, and how Germany navigated the Cold War through the eyes of Gunther. METROPOLIS is the 14th book in the series and the reader has experienced the progression of Gunther from his time as a Berlin detective, a reluctant member of the Gestapo, and the course of his career in and out of law enforcement during World War II and the Cold War.
(Reichstag Building, 1928)
The series is not presented in chronological order as we witness the rise of Nazism, the coming to power of Adolf Hitler, German’s defeat in World War II, and how Germany fits into the post war world. Despite the lack of chronological continuity, Kerr makes it easy for the reader to follow German history through Gunther’s experiences. It is interesting that the final volume is set in Weimar Berlin in 1928, a city that resembled Babylon which according to Gunther “was a byword for iniquity and the abominations of the earth, whatever they might be.”
Metropolis begins with Gunther’s promotion from the vice squad by Bernhard Weiss, Berlin’s Chief of Criminal Police to a position on the Murder Commission. A move that will change Gunther’s life in that from this point on everyone he meets has the capacity to commit murder and he must size them up. The first case deals with the murder of three prostitutes by a serial killer nickname “Winnetou,”* and the investigation reflects the underside of what Berlin has become – a dichotomy of rich and mostly poor who will do anything to survive. Kerr has an excellent command of history as he weaves events and personalities throughout the novel. In this case, it is the stirring of the Nazis as a political party, worker unrest exacerbated by the Communist Party, the inflation of 1923 and what it has done to the savings and daily cost of living for the people of Berlin.
A major theme that permeates the story is the effect of World War I on the soldiers who survived the carnage of the trenches and the battlefield overall. Today we refer to it as post-traumatic stress disorder, after WWI it was called shell shock for which over 80,000 German soldiers were under medical treatment in 1928. For eugenicists of the period, Berlin was infested with crippled combat veterans who survived in their “cripple carts”, crutches, and severe pain. They are paralyzed, suffer from anger issues, flashbacks, survival guilt, and as Robert Jay Lifton, an American psychiatrist who specializes in surviving extreme trauma has pointed out, deal with the loss of self as they try to cope each day. For those living in Berlin in 1928 their lives offer a version of some sort of trauma daily; i.e., the violence pursued by Nazis and Communists, the lack of food, homeless in shelters, thousands living on the street, unemployment etc.
Kerr’s theme is carried forth as the Murder Commission learns of a series of murders of disabled veterans perpetrated by a man referred to as Dr. Gnadenschuss** by the press, who are killed by one bullet to the back of the head. Some argue that the murderer is doing society a favor by doing away with the constant reminder that Germany lost the war. For these eugenicists, the Weimar Republic must be cleansed for Germany to recover her strength, and the weak must be weeded out. These views are accepted by many including Doctors, Konrad Biesalski and Hans Wurtz who administer the Oskar-Helene rehabitation facility for veterans whose ideas on medical care and social integration are at best, Neanderthal.
Philip Kerr, 62, Author of ‘Gunther’ Crime Novels, Is Dead
The scars that have infected Gunther’s soul come to the fore throughout the novel. As in other books in the series, Gunther’s daily existence is a battle in dealing with his past, the moral choices he makes, and what he has become. Gunther’s sardonic and sarcastic commentary is a defense mechanism to cope with what ails him. He is aware of what the war has done to him, but he is able to compensate for his feelings and thoughts through his firm belief in what he is accomplishing as an officer of the law living in Berlin under the aegis of the Weimar Republic, a seedy, sexy, and cosmopolitan edifice that is out of step with the growing fascist threat to the rest of the country.
Kerr pursues many strategies in conveying his material. One approach stands out the best, the soliloquies that Gunther has with himself, particularly when he enters an imaginary conversation with Mathilde Luz, a young Jewish worker who was the first victim. At the suggestion of Bernhard Wiess, Berlin’s Chief of Criminal Police, Gunther is encouraged to place himself in the shoes of the victim as a tool in solving the murder.
Taken as a whole METROPOLIS is detective story and a nasty murder mystery that will maintain the interest of the reader throughout. It is a tale of vice and horror that works and lives up to the standards that Kerr has developed in his previous novels involving Detective Gunther. As Adrian McKinty writes in The Guardian the book is “wonderfully plotted, with elegant prose, witty dialogue, homages to German Expressionism and a strong emotional charge, this is a bittersweet ending to a superb series.” (The Guardian, 4 April 2019)
*fictional Native-American hero from the novels of Karl May. The term means “burning water.”