Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Today, Meet "The Marlboro Man Of Weltschmerz"

This blogger discoveredThis blogger discovered two fictional cops at the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century: Jack Reacher, a rootless former MP commander in the US army, and Bernard (Bernie) Gunther, a rootless former Berlin detective. Both of these fictional cops are fascinating characters — see all of the Jack Reacher novels here and all of the Bernie Gunther novels here. If this is a (fair & balanced) escape from the dreary days of 2017, so be it.

[X New Yorker]
The Plot Thickens
By Jane Kramer

TagCrowd cloud of the following piece of writing

created at

Survivors pay with their conscience,” the novelist Sybille Bedford wrote in her memoir, Quicksands (2005). “Some have paid to the end of their own road. Those who have got off lightly paid perhaps too little. . . . I feel I am one of those.” I often wonder what Bedford would have made of the detective known to readers as Bernie Gunther, commissar of the Murder Squad of the Kriminalpolizei, in Berlin. (Call it the Scotland Yard of Germany.) Bedford, born in Berlin to an elderly German baron and his young, wealthy Jewish wife, was a month shy of her ninety-fourth birthday when her memoir appeared, in 2005. She had survived the First World War in the relative safety of a Berlin mansion and was able to flee Europe and spend the Second World War in comfortable, even glamorous, literary exile in Los Angeles. But insofar as she had already spent a long writing life examining the ways in which a person’s acknowledged debts to conscience could provide that person with the illusion of some small, salutary space—a space in which it was imperative to remember, and to act with decency—her words have always reminded me of Gunther, one of crime fiction’s most satisfying and unlikely survivors: the good cop in the belly of the Nazi beast.

Bernie Gunther is the brainchild of Philip Kerr, a prolific and uncommonly versatile Scottish writer, who claims to have found his literary calling at the age of twelve, when he retrieved a forbidden copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover from his parents’ library and began writing dirty stories that he rented out, seriatim, to his classmates. His Gunther novels—the latest, Prussian Blue (2017), is the twelfth in the series—had their origin in a postgraduate course on law and philosophy at the University of Birmingham, where Kerr developed an insistent curiosity about the influence of German Romanticism on that country’s legal philosophy and, in turn, on the legally codified embrace of state terror that began there in 1933. Kerr made his first trip to Berlin in the early eighties, a few years after the course ended, and he kept returning.

I am a big fan of Bernie Gunther. I devoured the first three Gunther novels, in gulps of fright and pleasure, at the end of 1993, when they were published as a trilogy called Berlin Noir (1993). At the time, I was on assignment in Germany, staying in hotels where my late-night options were Gunther and a glass of room-service Riesling or TV reruns of the “Rocky” movies, with the grunts in German. It was no contest. For the next twelve years, my reporting life was marked by a certain frustration, as Kerr set Gunther aside and tried that versatile hand at science fiction, fantasy fiction, children’s fiction, and two anthologies called The Penguin Book of Lies and The Penguin Book of Fights, Feuds and Heartfelt Hatreds. I refused to read any of them, on principle. I was waiting for Gunther, whose blunt Berlin chivalry I had found appealing. I was still waiting when Bedford’s Quicksands arrived, in 2005, reminding me that, in matters of the cost to conscience of survival, Bedford and Gunther might well be kindred spirits. A year later, Bedford died, and, coincidentally, Kerr resurrected his reluctant detective.

Since then, Kerr has kept Gunther one step ahead of the Gestapo—not to mention the Mafia, the South American diaspora of death-camp commandants, and the Stasi—and scrambling for his life in novels that cover more than twenty years of mid-twentieth-century German history. The series has sent Gunther back and forth in time, often in the same book, on parallel adventures and eerie reëncounters with people he had seriously regretted encountering in the first place. I have known him not only as the on-again, off-again Commissar Gunther but also as a private Berlin gumshoe, a conscript sleuth for Joseph Goebbels, and a postwar concierge, working incognito at the Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat and spending his days off at Villa Mauresque, with Somerset Maugham, filling in as a fourth at bridge. But none of his adventures have been so strangely familiar as Prussian Blue, whose plot takes in high crime, sexual scandal, financial fraud, methamphetamines, and murder in Hitler’s Alpine dystopia during the week before the Führer’s fiftieth birthday.

The seat of that dystopia, in fact as in fiction, was a small mountain known as Obersalzberg, where Hitler had his Mar-a-Lago: an old chalet that he bought, in 1933, apparently with a chunk of the Mein Kampf royalties, and in the course of the next six years transformed from a rustic summer retreat into a mansion that in all but name was the German chancellery. He called it the Berghof—the mountain house—and spent much more time living there than he did in Berlin, a city he disliked intensely. He received his most important state visitors at the Berghof, and installed a shadow government in and around the valley town of Berchtesgaden, importing a reliably complicit staff and leaving them free to settle into houses and offices that they were able to expropriate at prices so low that most of the local families were forced to leave. Highways were built to Berchtesgaden. Trains from Munich stopped there. And if you wanted to see the Führer your path up the magic mountain of National Socialist pathology was blocked unless you were invited, vetted, and then inspected by the soldiers waiting in front of locked gates.

Enter Bernie Gunther. It is April of 1939, a week before Hitler’s birthday, and Gunther has just been intercepted in the lobby of Kripo (for Kriminalpolizei) headquarters by two Gestapo agents with orders to deliver him to the Nazi nerve center on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, where Reinhard Heydrich—commandant of the SS, chief of police, and head of the state security apparatus—is holding court in a vast white office two floors above the torture chambers in the basement. As Gunther describes it, this is “a place of woe,” where no one except Dante and perhaps Virgil could enter “without wondering if they would ever come out again.” Heydrich lets our hero sweat for a few minutes, and then offers him a cigarette from a silver box. The respite is brief. A big Mercedes waits downstairs to spirit Gunther out of Berlin to Bavaria, where, just hours earlier, a man had been murdered on the Berghof terrace after a reportedly amiable breakfast meeting of the engineers, architects, and civil servants involved in planning the latest costly improvements to the Führer’s house.

The victim was one of the engineers, a man in his forties named Karl Flex. The weapon was a rifle so quiet that nobody on the terrace had heard the shot, or even known that anything odd had happened until Flex fell forward, with a bullet hole in the back of his head. In fact, no one could say for sure that Flex was the intended target. It was, as Heydrich himself admits, a case that only Bernie Gunther had the mind and the persistence to solve, especially given that the killer had to be caught, handed over, and dispatched—which is to say, all evidence of the crime and the criminal obliterated—by the time Hitler arrived to celebrate his birthday. There is also, of course, the possibility that, once he has solved the case, Gunther will be dispatched as well.

The man in charge of the Berghof, and Heydrich’s match when it came to villainy, at least among Germans who still believed that Hitler was excitable but blameless—a visionary whose ravings might fill tens of thousands of followers at a torchlit rally with fear and trembling, but who in fact lived only to restore Germany to its rightful glory—is the Führer’s chief of staff and private secretary, Martin Bormann. Bormann ran the protection rackets in Berchtesgaden, along with the property expropriations and the construction scams. Heydrich was the ideological zealot of the two; he was already masterminding the genocide that he formalized three years later, at the Wannsee Conference, as the Final Solution to the Jewish Question; and even Hitler referred to him (it has to be said, with admiration) as “the man with the iron heart.” Bormann murdered no less enthusiastically, but for money, rage, and the trustworthy silence of a corpse. What they shared was a desire to destroy each other. The result is that when Gunther and his Murder Squad assistant, Friedrich Korsch—a Kripo cop whom he insists on bringing with him—arrive at the official guesthouse below the Berghof, Gunther has a second, secret investigation to pursue for Heydrich. His orders are to cast a serious eye on Bormann, and to uncover the kind of evidence that can be used, if not to destroy him, then to place him firmly in Heydrich’s power.

I never knew how hard it was to describe a thriller, especially one in which fact and fiction blend so seamlessly, until I sat down with “Prussian Blue.” Thrillers are thorny gifts for critics. It’s not a matter of Elizabeth meets Darcy, and, after a number of setbacks involving pride, prejudice, and social station, they work things out, declare their love, and, in the end, marry. With a great thriller, the important thing is to tell the story while never giving anything away, certainly not who did it and, in the case of a Gunther thriller—densely populated and always dizzyingly complex—the logic by which our redoubtable protagonist finally gets his man.

The best thrillers share some of that depth and density. They are really social histories, disguised in nineteenth-century-novel form, though often with a bit of late-twentieth-century nouveau roman thrown in, perhaps to signal the sensitive self-searching of some of their toughest sleuths. They paint what could even be called ethnographic portraits of societies in which particular kinds of crimes consistently appear and of the people who tend to commit those crimes. By now, thrillers like Philip Kerr’s have become a genre in themselves and, more to the point, a voyage in themselves. They are exhaustively researched, reportorial in detail, and, in their invention, obsessively liberating, which may account for the fact that most journalists I know love them, and more than a few end up writing them. Read Jo Nesbø’s series about the brooding, tormented policeman Harry Hole, for the texture and temperament of Oslo and the crimes and cops that describe it. Read Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels for their evocations of numbing loneliness in provincial Sweden. Go back and read Ngaio Marsh for New Zealand and James McClure for Natal and Martin Cruz Smith for Moscow and James Lee Burke for Louisiana and, for Italy, Michael Dibdin, whose police detective Aurelio Zen sorts with Cartesian clarity the cultures of that polyglot country, region by region, and the crimes that express their difference. Read John le Carré for anywhere his imagination alights. And, most of all, take a fresh look at Raymond Chandler, to whom Kerr is often compared and whose Philip Marlowe (indistinguishable now from Humphrey Bogart) will lead you through the streets and the secrets of Los Angeles.

Gunther has a lot in common with Marlowe. They cover the same mid-century years. They are cynical by nature, skeptical of “truths,” and, because of this, shrewd and acute interpreters of what passes for reality in our vividly postlapsarian world. Add to that their sentimental weakness for women, although Gunther’s taste tends to be more Weimar than Hollywood. (The woman with whom he shares two deeply rueful kisses, by way of goodbye, after he solves the mystery of the engineer’s murder, is Gerdy Troost, the Führer’s interior designer and the bluestocking of his Alpine entourage. She is almost androgynously slim, partial to trousers, men’s shirts, and, for panache, a casually tossed-on white fur jacket. Give her a top hat and you’d have “Cabaret.”)

But Southern California was Chandler’s own stomping ground. He occupied the same time and space as Marlowe, whereas Kerr, who was born in Edinburgh eleven years after the end of the Second World War, keeps dropping into Hitler’s Germany like a local in a time machine. And the important difference, the one that makes Kerr unique among his big-picture-thriller predecessors and contemporaries, is that so many of the minor characters in “Prussian Blue,” Troost among them, actually did exist in 1939, pretty much as the historians and even the film footage of the time depict them, alongside the Reinhard Heydrichs and the Martin Bormanns. Taken together, they give Gunther a kind of verisimilitude by association, because the mystery at the heart of any Gunther book isn’t who did it or who is real. It’s Gunther. Could an indispensable but always, in the end, expendable contrarian cop really have survived ten minutes in a Germany possessed by the demons of Blut und Boden? And, if so, given Gunther’s talents and the opportunities for flight on some of those far-flung missions he cannot refuse, why does he choose to stay? He is the case that can’t be closed, the secret to his own longevity as fiction.

Melancholic would be too mild a word to describe Bernie Gunther. I prefer to think of him as the Marlboro Man of Weltschmerz. I imagine him with the same wry, penetrating, cowboy gaze, the eyes that tell you he’s seen it all. He can quote the most mournful bits of Goethe and brood over the philosophical “I” of Fichte—but it’s usually only to himself and, by extension, you. He’s reluctant to show his hand, unless it levels the field in a potentially nasty encounter or gives him a tactical advantage while out fishing for information. Then his style is pure Berlin—tough, mocking, scathingly direct. He never mentions the Iron Cross that he earned fighting in some of the worst battles of the First World War and has left buried in a drawer; or the loss of his first wife, the love of his life, to the influenza epidemic that decimated what was left of Europe in 1918.

By the time Hitler took over the Chancellery, in 1933—ten years after the Beer Hall Putsch, in Munich, and with his followers on the rampage again at home—Gunther had moved beyond disillusion, which is to say, he had no expectations left of human beings. He decided to survive. It was his one ambition, a personal je m’en fous to the regime. He never lied about who he was—a Social Democrat, passionately anti-fascist and certainly no anti-Semite—but, by his lights, he was tolerated by the Nazis who kept him on call both because of his genius for detection and because, knowing that he despised them all, they also knew that he could not be compromised by any one of them and used against the rest.

Occasionally, he found someone to trust, even among the Nazis encamped in Berchtesgaden in “Prussian Blue”—someone struggling with regrets, caught between loyalty and shame. There was the brilliant and sympathetic Gerdy. And there was Albert Bormann, a Nazi Motor Corps general repulsed by the savagery of his brother, Martin, who had started murdering, Albert says, at the age of nineteen, when he and three other young paramilitary thugs stomped to death the Jewish political philosopher and Shakespeare translator Gustav Landauer—after which he posed for pictures, grinning, with his booted foot on Landauer’s head. Albert offers the evidence of his brother’s crimes to Gunther, although they both agree that murders like that were now so commonplace in Germany that to impress Heydrich Gunther would need evidence of a serious offense: hiding a Jew, say, or joining the Resistance.

But Gunther’s closest confidant in the book is entirely Kerr’s creation, an SS captain and fellow-Berliner named Hermann Kaspel, who shares his frustration with the lazy sleuthing of Martin Bormann’s dim, corrupt Bavarian cops. Kaspel is a Nazi. A believer, he says. Not ready to admit the worst of Hitler. He and Gunther agree to disagree, and in no time they are a team, acknowledging their common need to occupy whatever narrowing space is left for justice in Germany, and the trust it inspires between them.

In this, Gunther is unique among the überheroes who usually command our empathy in thrillers set during the Hitler years—the martyred resisters drawn from Stauffenberg, say, or the noble commoners like Schindler. The difference lies in the radical pragmatism of Gunther’s moral compass, which is keyed to neither outrage nor indifference. Kerr underlines the odd symbiosis between his two good cops when Kaspel dies with his illusions intact, mistaken for Gunther—and Gunther, grieving, exacts some measure of revenge.

Prussian blue is the name of a ferrocyanide pigment first synthesized in 1704, in Berlin, much loved by painters for its depth of color but known in the world of toxicology as an exceptionally painful antidote to heavy-metal poisoning. In the winter of 1956, when Gunther and his old Kripo sidekick, Friedrich Korsch, meet again, in a dark alley in Villefranche, it was already the weapon of choice among the secret agents of the Soviet bloc. Their meeting, in the first chapters of Prussian Blue, signals one of those parallel adventures which run through so many of the Gunther novels, and involves a deadly chase through France that frames the story of their week in Berchtesgaden, seventeen years earlier, and interrupts it when you least expect it. Korsch is now a Stasi enforcer, working for Erich Mielke, who would soon become the East German Minister for State Security and create the most intrusive and effective police state in Communist Eastern Europe. Mielke has traced Gunther to the South of France with a proposition, and makes it clear that Gunther’s second wife, estranged and living in Berlin, will suffer if he says no.

The job is this: in the morning, Gunther will board a train to London, where he will receive a vial of the heavy metal thallium, and use it to poison a double agent who, in fact, had once betrayed Gunther with so little remorse that he would happily see her killed—but not by him. Gunther gets on the train and, of course, escapes, though not before killing one of his minders in the toilet. Suddenly, he is a wanted man in France, pursued by Korsch and zigzagging his way north on local trains and stolen bicycles, sleeping in fields and barns. It’s a terrifying journey, with policemen waiting at every station, descriptions of him in all the papers, craven locals eager to report each sighting, and Korsch luring him to the inevitable showdown. Not much later, Bernie Gunther is across the border in West Germany.

The mystery, of course, is why Germany, when the obvious choice was to head west and disappear, as far as he could get from the virtual army of old Nazis and new Stasi eager to silence the good cop with a memory as long and fresh as their crimes. But it wasn’t really a choice for Gunther. He longed for Germany, for the inexplicable balm of home—of Heimat—which had first drawn him to Berlin and kept him in his adopted city through the worst of times. He claims that as late as ’39, when he was ordered to Obersalzberg, Berlin was the one place in Germany where he could still breathe in the dimly lingering cosmopolitanism of the Weimar years—when it was a riotously polyglot town, an immigrant town, Social Democratic to Communist to anarchist at its working-class core, and had, in fact, cast the lowest percentage of National Socialist votes of any German state. It was where he could count on the rare but sustaining comforts of old friendships, tender women, bad cigarettes, good beer, and fat Berlin sausages, and on the knowledge that he might possibly save some lives, while saving his own, whenever he had the chance.

None of which solves the mystery of Bernie Gunther, hiding in plain sight among the worst villains of the Third Reich—their fates recorded helpfully (if ironically) in Kerr’s acknowledgments pages—let alone the far deeper mystery of why, in a time of horrific cruelty and genocidal murder, when many of the best people in Germany have left, or tried to flee, others have elected to remain at home, anxiously holding the fort and hoping to last until the carnage ends. The word Heimat is a thick German Romantic concept. It can’t really be reduced to such a, well, homey word as “home,” though that is its English meaning. Heimat is home with attitude, a mystical sense of connectedness that infuses and, in a way, locates identity in the self and in contemplation of the self. Innerlichkeit, or “innerness,” the Germans say. Gunther can’t go home to his beloved Berlin, where too many people know him, and some of them want him dead. Three days after crossing the border from France, he gets on a train for Munich, with a new name, a new birthday, a new driver’s license, and a new passport—a man without a past but, as he says to himself, maybe a fighting chance for a future. It may be that, for Philip Kerr, depositing Gunther in the city where the German nightmare began in a beer hall, in 1923, was a way of settling Gunther’s debt to conscience—a very painful reckoning, not unlike the antidote to poison called Prussian blue. # # #

[Jane Kramer has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1964 and has written the Letter from Europe since 1981. Before joining the magazine, Kramer was a staff writer for the Village Voice; her first book, Off Washington Square, is a collection of her articles from that paper. She has published two collections of essays from The New YorkerAllen Ginsberg in America (1969), and Honor to the Bride (1970), which was based on her experiences in Morocco in the late nineteen-sixties. Since 1970, most of Kramer’s work for the magazine has covered aspects of European culture, politics, and social history. A notable exception to Kramer’s European reporting was her 1977 Profile of the pseudonymous Texan Henry Blanton. It was later published as a book, The Last Cowboy (1977), which won the American Book Award for nonfiction. Parts of her book Lone Patriot (2002), on the right-wing American militia leader John Pitner, also first appeared in the magazine. Her article on multiculturalism and political correctness, “Whose Art Is It?,” won the 1993 National Magazine Award for feature writing and was published as a book in 1994. Mayer received a BA (English) from Vassar College and an MA (English) from Columbia University.]

Copyright © 2017 The New Yorker/Condé Nast Digital

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License..

Copyright © 2017 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves