Bernie Gunther

Created by Philip Kerr
(1956-2018)

“Murders were a lot easier to catch before Hitler came to power… for one thing, they weren’t so thick on the ground as they are now.”
Bernie in The One from the Other

When we first meet him, in March Violets (1989), BERNIE GUNTHER is a former German soldier (he fought with the Wehrmacht on the Turkish Front in the first World War) and a ex-cop (an inspector for the Kriminalpolizei) working as a private eye in the pre-World War II years of Berlin, and specializing in missing persons. Due to the rise of National Socialism, business is coming along nicely, thank you (where are all the Jews going?), even if Bernie doesn’t seem to be making many friends with the powers that be. He’s got a sharp tongue, you see, and worse, scruples.

Yet somehow, against all odds, Bernie manages, in three novels, to survive not just the rise of Nazism but also the Second World War (and a stint as a Russian POW), and emerges in the third novel, A German Requiem, re-established as a P.I. in the smug, hypocritical world of 1947 Vienna, with its corruption, its black markets and its prostitution.

The first novel, March Violets ( or L’été de cristal as it was called in France) won the Prix du roman d’aventures in 1993. Sharply-drawn characters and an in-your-face history lesson made “The Berlin Trilogy,” a Ground Zero view of the rise and fall of the Third Reich, the war and the Holocaust, one of the most critically acclaimed and most intriguing detective series of its era. Absolutely essential reading.

And there it stood for fifteen years; a trilogy of astounding power and depth.

* * * * *

And then Kerr decided to bring back Bernie.

To perhaps even more acclaim. The first novel to arrive was The One From the Other (2006), and it found melancholy shape-shiftingr Bernie managing a failing hotel in the shadow of the Dachau concentration camp, contemplating re-opening his private detective agency in the brave new world of American-occupied Germany.

2009’s A Quiet Flame has Bernie taking it on the lam to Argentina in 1950, falsely accused of being a war criminal. In If the Dead Rise Not (2010) and Field Gray (2011), Bernie continues his travels, eventually landing back in a still-shattered Germany in the mid-fifties, as hard on himself as anyone:

“I didn’t like Bernhard Gunther very much. He was cynical and world-weary and hardly had a good word to say about anyone, least of all himself. He’d had a pretty tough war . . . and done quite a few things of which he wasn’t proud… It had been no picnic for him since then either; it didn’t seem to matter where he spread life’s tartan rug, there was always a turd on the grass.”

But Kerr has also looked backwards, flashing back on Bernie’s earlier, untold experiences in the war in Prague Fatale (2012) and A Man Without Breath (2013). War may be Hell but an awful lot of readers were glad Kerr sent Bernie back every now and then.

Throughout the series, though, the one thing we could look forward to — beyond fast-talking Bernie’s rather spectacular survival skills and mordant wisecracks (he is a mouthy S.O.B.), was an all-encompassing and unapologetic humanity. Yes, there was horrendous evil here, the author seemed to suggest, but also, despite it all, good of a kind (if sometimes in limited supply) and a slim glimmer of, of all things, hope.

UNDER OATH

  • “… a beautifully written novel by a gifted writer who has left us too soon.”
    — Peter Earnest (The Washington Post) on Greeks Bearing Gifts

THE EVIDENCE

  • ““Someone has to do the thinking around here now that the police dogs have been sacked.” ”
    — Bernie, typically, mouthing off to ahe authorities in Prussian Blue
  • “I used to take a satisfaction in protecting society. Now I wouldn’t know where to start.”
    — Bernie looks back on his days as a cop, pre-Hitler, in The One from the Other
  • “Everyone was throwing money at me. A thousand marks here, A thousand marks there. I felt like an official in the Reich Ministry of Justice.”
    — Bernie, ibid.
  • “I don’t like it one bit. But I’m delighted to see it exhibited without any interference from people who know as little about art as I do… That’s democracy, I guess.”
    — Bernie, when asked if he likes a particular piece of modern art, ibid.

NOVELS

COLLECTIONS

RELATED LINKS

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Merci à Marcel Bernadac for helping fill in some of the details on this one.

2 thoughts on “Bernie Gunther

  1. I’m definitely going to check this out. The detective’s extremely caustic black humor in the face of his country’s moral disintegration recalls, at least to my ears, the excellent Arkady Renko novels by Martin Cruz Smith. Do you enjoy those and is it possible we may see a review of them in the future?

    Like

    1. Sorry, Will, I can barely keep up with private eyes here, never mind a Moscow homicide dick.

      But yes, I’m aware of the similarities between Bernie and Arkady. Two good men, bearing witness to their beloved homes being torn asunder from the inside out; a cancer of greed, corruption and outright evil slowly metastasizing.

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