Philip Kerr Returns to the Start
Detective series might be a dime a dozen these days, but few and far between are those which manage to truly makes us care for the protagonist, the point where we look forward to seeing them above their adventures. I believe Philip Kerr has not only achieved this feat, but set a high standard of how to compellingly develop a character over several novels with his Bernie Gunther series. In April of 2019 the final chapter of Metropolis in the Bernie Gunther series was posthumously published, rather appropriately taking us back to the detective’s first days on the force, closing his story full-circle.
The year is 1928, and Berlin is reeling not only from the reparations imposed by the victors of the First World War, but also struggling with internal tensions imploding, sometimes violently, between various political gangs. The post-war era is kind to few, with homelessness, high unemployment rates and inflation being the main themes of the decade. However, when Bernie sets foot in the central police headquarters, he is faced with something potentially worse and certainly more sinister: a serial killer finding some easy prey in the heart of a chaotic city.
Even worse, the killer is taunting the police by leaving trails of clues which ultimately lead them nowhere. While Bernie’s talent and potential was certainly recognized by his superiors, everyone expects him to sit quietly, listen and learn before speaking. However, as circumstances become increasingly dire, he is forced to do a little bit more than waiting around, in the process discovering the line between him and the criminal element might be much blurrier than he anticipated.
Enter Seedy Berlin in Metropolis
Philip Kerr has never shied away from showing his deep love towards the city of Berlin, doubtlessly investing countless hours into researching its history as well as its people throughout the ages. While I can’t say I’ve personally ever been there, it often feels as if reading a Bernie Gunther novel is the next best thing. In my opinion, Kerr is likely one of the most talented authors I have ever read when it comes to building a setting, taking us on a virtual tour of Berlin, mainly visiting the sorts of spots tourist guides would tend to avoid.
Specifically in Metropolis, the Berlin we are presented with is one ruled by gangs and chaos, one where the seedy underground has found its way to the surface. Especially in the earlier parts of the book, Kerr takes his time in describing the city and its citizens in great detail, and not only from a visual perspective. He does a great job at establishing historical context in a brief and concise way so as not to turn into a history book, all while giving us a good idea of the various mentalities which governed the people of the era.
In turn, I believe Kerr’s efforts to build the setting pay a lot of dividend when it comes to the progression of the plot. More often than not, we are moving from one unique locale to the next, meeting an assortment of characters from different walks of life. While in another novel this approach might seem a tad cartoonish, in Metropolis every single person has their place within their believable setting. In other words, I never had trouble believing the people and places we visited could have existed in real life. Kerr easily sold me on his vision of 1928 Berlin, ultimately making the progression of the story much more effective.
The Rookie Rises
The city itself might qualify as a character in its own right, but let’s face it, the real reason we are all here is to see the story of Bernie’s first case with the Berlin Murder Squad, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. To begin with, Bernie is, quite rightfully, not the person we know him to be from later books, with still a hint of idealism to him and a radiating belief about his moral high ground. Kerr’s depiction of a young Gunther certainly sits in line with how I would imagine him (more or less), and I feel the author ought to get some praise for managing to turn back the clock on his character and write him in a believable way after having developed him for so long.
Bernie’s harrowing journey in pursuit of the killer is everything we’ve come to expect from the author, filled with tricks, traps, twists, turns, and of course, a moral unravelling as the protagonist faces true evil for the first time. While he certainly doesn’t magically turn into the Bernie we’re all used to at the end of the novel, he does undergo some tangible transformations as descends deeper and deeper into the heart of Berlin’s darkness… especially as he bears witness to the Nazi takeover of the police department.
The actual hunt after the serial killer also delivers in its own right, constantly challenging the reader to put together the clues and try to predict where the trail will ultimately lead. It was also fairly entertaining to see how the people of Berlin reacted to his crimes, with many even becoming obsessed with the idea of some vengeful phantom stalking the streets. While I personally failed to unravel the threads before the author did it for me, I do have the impression it is possible to solve it, at least for those of you with better deductive skills than mine.
The Final Verdict
Though Philip Kerr and Bernie’s departures from this world have left many of us readers with a heavy heart, I cannot think of a better send-off for the series than Metropolis. It shows Kerr put a world of effort into the making the most of his many literary talents, and the result is a captivating origin story for Bernie Gunther as he investigates a complex murder mystery in a turbulent era of Berlin.
Whether you’ve read all the novels in the series or this is the first time you’re hearing about it, I believe it’s definitely worth a read, simply being one of the best detective novels I’ve read in recent memory.
Philip Kerr (February 22, 1956 – March 23, 2018) was a British author of historical detective thrillers best-known for the Bernie Gunther series which includes acclaimed novels such as March Violets and A German Requiem. He has also penned the Scott Manson series, various children’s fiction books (The Eye of the Forest and The Grave Robbers of Genghis Khan for instance), as well as many standalone novels including A Philosophical Investigation and The Second Angel.