In the late 1980s author Philip Kerr had the inspired idea of taking the architype of the private-eye as developed by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett — the loner trying to deliver justice in a morally corrupt bourgeois world — and placed it in the morally putrid world of pre-war Nazi Germany.
His Bernie Gunther was as hardboiled and full of wisecracks as Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade but he was investigating crime in a society whose leaders were committing “the crime of the millennium.”
Gunther’s adventures took place over 13 novels, which went from 1930s Germany into post-War Europe. Gunther’s great struggle in each book was to retain his humanity in a brutal and racist society.
Metropolis, the latest and last Bernie Gunther novel, is a prequel set in 1928 Weimar Germany and follows his first months as a member of the murder squad of Berlin’s Kriminalpolizei. Gunther is on the trail of a serial killer in a ruined and debauched Berlin where fascism is a growing threat.
Kerr plays a very clever game in Metropolis. His research is as impressively detailed as ever. Kerr draws a vivid picture of the actual Berlin of 1928 — both its topography and its people. In the course of his investigation Gunther gets to meet such luminaries as George Grosz, Otto Dix, Lotte Lenya and Bertolt Brecht. He drinks in the Sing Sing Club, visits The Cabaret of the Nameless and is at the rehearsals for the first production of The Threepenny Opera.
But Kerr is also aware of the cultural baggage that the period now carries for modern audiences. So he not only allows Gunther to meet the great artists of Weimar Berlin, he has him move through the Berlin they created. Gunther lives in the Berlin of M — Fritz Lang’s notorious 1931 film about a murderer of children — and the Weimar Berlin that Christopher Isherwood described (one of Gunther’s girlfriends is very similar to Cabaret’s Sally Bowles even down to her green nail varnish). Gunther has a colleague who matches Rudolf Forster’s portrayal of Mack the Knife in the 1931 film The Threepenny Opera. In Kerr’s Weimar Berlin, life imitates art imitating life.
Kerr wrote Metropolis knowing he had terminal cancer. Perhaps that explains why he drew clearer parallels between the past and the present than in his previous novels. When he started the series in 1989 with March Violets, the far right seemed a marginal force.
Today fascists hold office in many countries across Europe. When Gunther explains Weimar Berlin’s excesses on the grounds “we’re still coming to terms...with our immediate history” his boss pulls him up sharply: “You make it sound like history is something that could be over. But I’m afraid it’s never really over. Not today and certainly not tomorrow.” We cannot allow the Nazi past to become our future.
This is the last Bernie Gunther novel written by his creator. It’s the best in the series.