Just A Couple of Good Guesses Away!….
Metropolis by Phillip Kerr
‘Sometimes, a stupid man is only a couple of good guesses away from looking clever!’ Phillip Kerr
I was born prematurely and was pretty sick for a couple of months. My mother reckons that it was an experience that coloured the rest of my life…………………………..……….not because the sickness had any lasting effect but being early was such a horrible experience for the newly-born me, my ma reckons I made sure I wouldn’t take the risk of being early ever again!! School, buses, meetings, birthdays, dates, flights………….. you name it, and since that early start in 1961, I’ve been late for it! But perhaps reading Metropolis by Phillip Kerr will be the only ridiculously, unforgivably, inexcusably ‘late’ in my life’ that I might be able to make up for…..
And the reason? Well, Metropolis is the 14th and final ‘Bernie Gunther’ novel from Phillip Kerr, after his untimely death last year – and while it might be the ‘last’ of the Bernie Gunther novels, for me it’s my first. Talk about being late to the party!
'I always worry that I've written one too many Bernie Gunther books........... I should probably give him his gold watch!'
Phillip Kerr talking about his Bernie Gunther novels……… though am pretty sure anybody who reads these books would be glad Bernie never did get that gold watch!
Having written that paragraph above, , even with perverse pride in being late for everything, I can’t quite believe I’m so late getting to these wonderful books and fantastic characters because (a) Kerr is Scottish and I wear my patriotic fervour for my home country on my patriotic sleeve, (b) the stories are set in the time up to and through the Weimar Republic into the rise of the Nazi’s, which is the period in history I’ve studied most and been most fascinated by, and above all, (c) because having read how bloody great Metropolis is, how did the other 13 Bernie Gunther novels escape me????
But even being this late to these novels, it’s worked out in my favour I think… for although Metropolis is the last book Phillip Kerr wrote, it actually tells the story of Bernie’s origins as he’s just been transferred from Vice to the Murder Commission in Berlin. And this isn’t any old Berlin… this is the edgy, seedy, out-there Berlin of the 1920’s and 30’s, when the almost hedonistic anarchy of the late Weimar Republic is about to be first challenged by, and then crushed by, the rise of Hitler’s Nazis.
‘Can you imagine how much of existence would be impossible if people didn’t believe in a certain amount of luck in the face of all evidence to the contrary? The true essence of human life is delusion. That’s what we’ve got in here. And it’s been that way ever since the first Roman soldier blew on a handful of dice. It’s simple human nature to believe your luck is going to turn’
Metropolis by Phillip Kerr
It’s 1928 when Metropolis opens and Bernie Gunther has just been promoted to the Berlin Murder wagon on the back of his success in Vice. In the best traditions of detective fiction, Gunther is a damaged individual, though in his case it’s the intriguing and entirely believable mix of the horrors he’s seen during the First World War and a world-weariness that settles into his life in post-war Berlin. Added to that mix are a collection of misfits-cum-friends sharing the boarding house where he lodges, rampant alcoholism and the sex-charged city around him.
His arrival on the Berlin Murder Squad coincides with the beginnings of a serial killer brutally butchering prostitutes around the city. From the outset though for all that world-weary cynicism and despair, you can see Gunther is a detective with a very human side – he cares and it’s brilliantly marked out early in the novel when he conducts a tender and touching imaginary dialogue with the first of the discovered victims. However, politics in this world is never far away and the priority case of tracking the serial killer of the prostitutes is soon overtaken when another serial killer begins to kill off destitute begging war veterans by shooting them at close range.
‘You’re hard enough to ice skate on…………….!’
In one sense what makes this a great crime novel is that Gunther is a classic detective – he’s damaged and the scars show. At the same time, in spite of the attempts of life and crime to grind him down, he’s still got a humanity that drives him on. As a character Bernie Gunther felt fresh and vibrant to me – that might be partly as I’m reading about him for the first time but I think it’s more to do with how wonderfully well drawn he is – it’s noticeable that in reading other reviews of ‘Metropolis’ by people who’ve read way more Bernie Gunther novels than I have, they consistently enthuse about him as a character and they lament the death of Phillip Kerr and the loss of a great fiction writer.
The other part of why this was a great read for me was the setting. The time and place are ripe for crime, that edginess by day and seediness by night, and the volatile mix of the politics of evil, the scourge of rising anti-Semitism and the cocktail of so many damaged human beings means that the Berlin of between the wars is one helluva place to set detective fiction!
But it feels of its time too. The way in which the fictional Gunther thinks about and lives in the Berlin of the late 1920’s is brimming with life and all of its joys, sadness, hope and madness. But adding to that sense of place and time is the way in which Kerr weaves in the lives of real people and events from history. The title of the novel takes its name from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film ‘Metropolis’ and among those whom Gunther comes into contact in the course of his investigations in Metropolis is Thea von Harbeau, Lang’s wife and scriptwriter for ‘Metropolis’. Best of all is the fact that Gunther’s boss in the Berlin Murder Squad is Ernst Gennat, who was the senior detective in Berlin through the 1920’s and 1930’s and Gennat is believed to have been the inspiration for the character of Inspector Lohmann in Lang’s next film ‘M’ about a child murdering serial killer. Thrown equally cleverly into the mix are the early rehearsals for the Threepenny Opera and the macabre Sing Sing nightclub with its own fully functioning electric chair for an unlucky guest each night! These things show that this is a meticulously researched novel and yet because it is so well written this doesn’t feel in the least like research being chucked out randomly – instead its beautifully woven into the story and so it all flows effortlessly.
‘Metropolis’ is one of the best detective novels I’ve read in a long time. The writing is wonderful – if you’re a reader like me who likes to mark and note down memorable phrases and passages, then ‘Metropolis’ is certainly a novel where your note taking will be kept busy from start to finish! As a lover of crime fiction, I’m always hoping to discover something new that will feed me for several novels to come. Bernie Gunther is definitely one of those detective discoveries – and though it will be through the back catalogue, I’m going to look forward to reading more of Phillip Kerr’s novels. I am ashamedly late to the Bernie Gunther party – but if Metropolis is anything to go by, I’m going to enjoying staying with this party quite a bit over the coming months and years! Better late than never I guess!
Metropolis by Phillip Kerr was published by Quercus Books in 2019. I bought my copy which has a really good introduction by Ian Rankin. As you’d expect with someone as well-known as Phillip Kerr there are no shortage of press reviews of his book out there – but rather than point towards one of those, if you’re interested in reading another review of ‘Metropolis’ try this one here at Alex J Book Reviews. In addition, there’s a decent website about Phillip Kerr, his character Bernie Gunther and the Gunther novels here.
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