The last week or so, I’ve written in different outlets about the impact Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series has had on my reading journey and personal life. While acknowledging the many faults of these books, I love them in a special way. I think Kerr is great at capturing atmosphere and cynicism to produce some truly great crime reading. “Nazi Noir” is a burgeoning genre now but Kerr’s Gunther works were really the trendsetter. Knowing this would be the last one following Kerr’s untimely death, and knowing it was set solely in Weimar Berlin, got me emotional just thinking about the book. I couldn’t wait to read it.
But as Mark McGwire said: “I’m not here to talk about the past.” Instead, I must address the present.
And this book is just not great. Even giving it three stars feels graceful.
I don’t know at what point in the editing process Kerr died and it feels ghoulish to speculate much. But this read to me like a rough draft. There’s little narrative flow, rough characterization and, while Kerr has sometimes struggled to toe the “showing v telling” line, here he just blasts right through it. I didn’t feel Weimar Berlin as much as I would have liked to because every character went on at length about the respective plights of disabled war veterans and prostitutes. And while the central mystery revolved around both, I got the sense that Berlin at the time was just people humping and begging. While there was plenty of that in real life 1928 Berlin, there was more going on too and Kerr barely taps into it. Foreshadowing is on every other page, although some credit is due for mentioning how violent the communists were in those days, not out of a sense of false equivalency but historical accuracy.
Also, and I can’t believe I’m saying this but I think this may have worked better with Kerr’s familiar (and often obnoxious) template of flashback/flash-forward. I didn’t like where Greeks Bearing Gifts left Bernie off so I don’t know. Maybe this was the plan the whole time. But Kerr really struggles to fill the space for 366 pages. It never feels like a cohesive story, rather a pastiche of scenes from a city in a forgotten time.
I’m dumping on this more than I should because the moments that do shine are good. Sometimes, the familiar Bernie peeks through. There are moments where Weimar Berlin feels real. The police procedural notes are well-done. It just does enough to round up to a 3 star.
But this book was tough on a number of levels: Saying goodbye to Bernie and the series, and reading it in the first place. I wish I liked it more.