The Pale Criminal (1990)
I set myself an almost impossible task with my first novel, March Violets, which was to recreate the atmosphere of pre-war Berlin. I wanted to imagine what would have happened if Chandler, who spent his youth in Dulwich, had moved there, rather than to California. At the time research seemed to be the key to getting published, so I spent hours tramping around Berlin; the whole process took about three years. I felt sufficiently interested in my gumshoe (Bernie Gunther) to write another two novels, but I didn't want to get stuck with him forever, so I decided to quit and try something else.
I believe -- though I'd be happy to hear counterarguments -- that it was Martin Cruz Smith, with Arkady Renko and Gorky Park (1981), who first had the idea of setting a mystery in a political milieu so oppressive that it cranked up the threat level under which pulp fiction detectives had always worked to an extraordinary degree. If so, Philip Kerr followed hard on his heels with the trio of Bernie Gunther novels -- available in one volume as Berlin Noir -- featuring a former police officer turned private eye in Nazi Germany. The Pale Criminal is the middle book, set in August through November of 1938, against a backdrop of the Sudeten crisis and the approach of Kristallnacht, as Gunther is forced to accept a return engagement as a Kriminalkommissar in the Security Service (the Kriminalpolizei, or Kripo, under Artur Nebe) by Reinhard Heydrich, whose own corrupted forces are incapable of solving a string of ritual murders of young Aryan girls.
Mr. Kerr renders a masterful homage to the classic private dicks, including the killing of Gunther's estranged partner, reminiscent of The Maltese Falcon, and featuring a quack doctor with a bogus sanitarium, and so on and so forth. What makes the book great though is his politically-incorrect, but accurate, depiction of the Nazis' hostility to religion generally and the Catholic Church in particular, and of the degree to which an inchoate opposition still existed at this point in time and might have coalesced had the West stood up to Hitler. None of us can know what late 30s Nazi Germany was like, so one hesitates to say that he captures it, but he does create a believable version of it, a milieu in which decent people can perceive the doom that awaits a society that has fallen into the grip of a morally debased party but can't quite figure out how to avert what's coming. It's a terrific book.
-AUTHOR SITE: Philip Kerr uk
-FILMOGRAPHY: Philip Kerr (IMDB.com)
-Granta Best Young Novelists: 1993
-ESSAY: Shelf Life (Philip Kerr, Oct 12, 1996, Independent uk)
-REVIEW: of The Godfather: The Lost Years by Mark Winegardner (Philip Kerr, The Guardian)
AUTHOR PAGE: Philip Kerr (Random House)
-Bernie Gunther (Thrilling Detective)
-SCOTTISH WRITERS: Philip Kerr (Slainte)
-INTERVIEW: Exploring Argentina's Anti-Semitic Past: Philip Kerr's latest novel, "A Quiet Flame," examines Directive 11, a secret order issued in 1938 that barred Jews from entering Argentina (JEFFREY A. TRACHTENBERG, 3/17/09, WSJ)
-PROFILE: Natural born thriller: Philip Kerr interview: Aidan Smith, 3/02/08, Scotland on Sunday)
-ARCHIVES: "Philip Kerr" (Find Articles)
-REVIEW: of Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr (BoldType)
-REVIEW: of The Shot by Philip Kerr (Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian)
-REVIEW: of Dark Matter: The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton by Philip Kerr (Complete Review)
-REVIEW: of Dark Matter (Roger K. Miller, Pittsburgh TRIBUNE-REVIEW)
-REVIEW: of Dark Matter (Tom Nolan, SF Chronicle)
-REVIEW: of Dead Meat by Philip Kerr (Newgate Callendar, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of The Grid by Philip Kerr (James Polk, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of A Five Year Plan by Philip Kerr (NAN GOLDBERG, Book Page)
-REVIEW: of The Second Angel by Philip Kerr (Complete Review)
-REVIEW: of The Second Angel (CHARLES FLOWERS, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of The Second Angel by Philip Kerr (Claude Lalumière, InfinityPlus)
-REVIEW: of The Second Angel (Gregg Thurlbeck, Rambles)
-REVIEW: of Hitler's Peace by Philip Kerr (Roger K. Miller, Chicago Sun-Times)
-REVIEW: of Hitler's Peace (Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
-REVIEW: of A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr (Ron Rosenbaum, Slate)
-REVIEW: of A Quiet Flame (Norman Price, EuroCrime)
-REVIEW: of Quiet Flame (Mike Ripley, EuroCrime)
-REVIEW: of Quiet Flame (Complete Review)
-REVIEW: of Quiet Flame (Sarah Weinman, LA Times)
-REVIEW: of Quiet Flame (Allan Massie, The Scotsman)
-REVIEW: of Quiet Flame (Susanna Yager, Daily Telegraph
-REVIEW: of Quiet Flame (Jake Kerridge, Daily Telegraph)
-REVIEW: of Quiet Flame (Peter Millar, Times of London)
-REVIEW: of Quiet Flame (Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
-REVIEW: of Quiet Flame (Marilyn Stasio, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of Quiet Flame (BookBrowse)
-REVIEW: of Quiet Flame (Irma Heldman, Open Letters)
-REVIEW: of Quiet Flame (Becky Guthrie, National Post)
-REVIEW: of Quiet Flame (Kevin Burton Smith, Mystery Scene)
-REVIEW: of Quiet Flame (Publishers Weekly)
-REVIEW: of Quiet Flame (Ron Rosenbaum, PJM)
Book-related and General Links:
-REVIEW: of The Pale Criminal by Philip Kerr (TC, Mystery Guide)
-Granta Best Young Novelists: 1993
-Kristallnacht (The HolocaustShoah Page)
-kristallnacht (Jewish Virtual Library)
I've read the first two novels, March Violets and The Pale Criminal, in this series. I just started the last part of the Berlin Noir triology, A German Requiem.
These books provide a fascinating portrait of a society that is rotting away. I was surprised by how much Kerr stuck to historical fact, though, as Mr. Judd says, there is no way to know how accurate is his portrayal of Germany before the war.
The protagonist, Gunther, is not likeable but than neither is anyone else in these novels. There are no innocents in either novel. The sewage has seeped down and corrupted everyone, even the young victims in The Pale Criminal. I'd say the main theme is how a corrupt regime in a democracy makes everyone complicit in its crimes and this is reflected by the stink, which Kerr describes time and again. You may think you are above the moral consequences or you have conveniently hidden the rot, but your senses tell you otherwise.
Gunther does articulate a strict moral view in The Pale Criminal that seemed to be lacking in March Violets, so I'd give the edge to the second book.
But, I think this triology, though it narrates 3 different events, is actually one story and the three should be read together, as it traces German society before and after WWII.
I highly recommend these books. Lots of violence and sex, and a lot of it is very disturbing, just to let the reader know.
- Jul-26-2007, 16:13
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd