METROPOLIS: A Bernie Gunther Novel, by Philip Kerr. A Marian Wood Book/G.P. Putnams Sons, 368 pp., $28.
What does it mean to be a “good cop” and a “good man” in Nazi Germany?
Those interlinked questions have been the driving force behind Philip Kerr’s fascinating, brilliantly researched historical thriller series starring Bernie Gunther, a cynical cop turned private detective.
Herr Gunther is a complicated, tragic hero navigating near-impossible odds. He becomes ensnared in Hitler’s evil web as a reluctant soldier; he never joins the Nazi party he abhors, although he is dragged into the SS. Gunther does not hate Jews; as he admits in "The One from the Other," he hates "the way I had become complicit in their genocide.”
Gunther nearly dies in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp, and things don’t get any easier during the Cold War. Has any character withstood more brutal beatings — usually with a smirk on his face?
It helps that he’s a sardonic wiseacre in the Philip Marlowe mold. Morally complex (he kills when he has to), Gunther tries to cling to his good-cop principles. Too often, it’s a losing battle.
Kerr, who died of cancer last year at age 62, introduced his fictional detective 30 years ago in “March Violets.” The British novelist unfurled Gunther’s story over 13 novels in riveting fashion. Now comes a 14th and final book, “Metropolis,” a prequel.
Just like Bernie (here in his early 30s), it’s tough, funny, smart and pointed. “Metropolis” is an excellent introduction for newcomers and a fitting coda for longtime fans.
The novel takes place in Weimar Berlin in 1928. It’s a city of decadence, prostitution, open homosexuality, cross-dressing nightclub performers and murder. As “Metropolis” opens, Bernie, while hardly naive, is optimistic. The Great War and the influenza epidemic are 10 years in the past; inflation is over. Yet as Kerr’s dark story unfolds, a more ominous undertone drums in the background. A menace lurks in the form of brown-shirted Nazis (Hitler is only five years from power) and rampant anti-Semitism.
One of Kerr’s trademarks is his seamless, provocative use of real-life characters, and “Metropolis” is no exception. That begins with Bernhard Weiss, Berlin’s chief of the Criminal Police, who offers Gunther, a vice cop, a job on the Murder Commission.
The immediate case at hand is the murders of four prostitutes who have been scalped; the killer has been dubbed Winnetou after the Karl May character (every German schoolboy of the time apparently read the German author’s Wild West novels).
Bernie quickly establishes his bona fides by astutely noticing clues others have missed. Something else sets Bernie apart. He’s one “bull” (cop) who actually has sympathy for prostitutes, many of whom have regular day jobs but are forced to go on the “sledge” to make ends meet.
The scalping cases can wait, though. Somebody is targeting the city’s wounded World War I vets, pathetic beggars who have lost limbs and troll for coins in Berlin’s train stations. The killer shoots these men in the head, the sound drowned out by passing trains.
Weiss has a new idea: immersion policing. Will Bernie disguise himself as a wounded veteran on a “cripple-cart” and try to lure the killer? It’s a dangerous assignment but Bernie is game; he himself served four years in the trenches.
The Murder Commission cases are plenty involving, but Kerr has more on his mind than mere entertainment. Eugenics, for one thing. There are physicians who believe these beggar veterans are worthless and damaging Germany, a grim foreshadowing of things to come.
Not that “Metropolis” is relentlessly morbid. Berlin is a living, grotesquely amusing character, as Kerr gives us a guided tour of the city, including the morgue, where citizens line up to view the dead as if they’re at the zoo; also the Sing Sing nightclub, where Bernie has a too-close encounter with a faux electric chair.
Early signs that Gunther will make many compromised choices emerge in “Metropolis,” even if this is a young man ”still capable of being shocked at human behavior.”
Many years later in 1949 in “The One from the Other," a world-weary Gunther will reflect: “After my own experiences of the Russian front, I came to believe human beings were capable of an unlimited degree of inhumanity. Perhaps that — our very inhumanity — is what makes us human most of all.” Bernie Gunther — our tortured if smart-mouthed guide through a 20th-century "Inferno" — is nothing if not human.
Kerr’s powerful series seems more vital than ever, with anti-Semitism, authoritarianism and white nationalism all on the rise. With a final bow from his flawed if improbably endearing hero, Kerr again reminds us: Never forget.