Meet Bernie Gunther

This year, 2010, marks the 75th Anniversary of my main publisher, Penguin Books, Canada, or as they are legally known, Penguin Group Canada Inc. To celebrate the anniversary the Penguins are doing a couple of really neat things, one of which is inviting their top-selling authors to take part in a poster campaign in which each author is photographed with his own personal favourite book from the list published by Penguin Canada since its inception. The poster campaign will then run nation-wide, bringing, one hopes, great books to the attention of new readers. I think it's a great idea and if you're interested, you can check it out at penguin.ca.

My own choice was Philip Kerr's "Berlin Noir Trilogy", which Penguin first published as individual novels in 1989 (March Violets), 1990 (The Pale Criminal) and 1991 (A German Requiem). For me, the selection was a no-brainer, for when I first laid hands on the omnibus 3-in-1 edition, I devoured it in one marathon, weekend-long session. I have to admit, I was impressed to have done that afterwards, because the genre involved has not been one of my traditional favourites. Hard boiled detective fiction has always been a greyish area for me in terms of enjoyment and enthusiasm. For one thing, it's normally 'dated' and for another the guys who were really good at writing it are mostly dead: Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and Dashiel Hammet, to name but the Immortal Few.

But then along came Philip Kerr and his creation, Bernie Gunther, a 1940s era private eye who works and functions on the fringes of the world of policemen and criminals, and the hard-boiled ball started bouncing again. Bernie learned his trade in the Berlin KRIPO, the Kriminalpolizei, in the late 1920s and early 1930s and now, at the opening of the first novel, he is trying to earn a living while minding his own business in the early Nazi Germany of 1934. Bernie’s a nice guy and a straight-shooter, but he does not get along well with bullies, hypocrites or people with no sense of humour. Which makes him a fish out of water in the Berlin of the swaggering National Socialists.

Like it or lump it, however, Bernie has attracted the attention of the tyrannical SS-Obergruppenf├╝hrer (General) Reinhard Heydrich, Chief of the Reich Main Security Office (including the Gestapo, SD and Kripo Nazi police agencies) and one of the principal architects of the Holocaust. Heydrich believes Bernie is the man for a specific job he needs done in order to clinch his private power struggle against equally high profile Nazis Heinrich Himmler and Dr. Joseph Goebbels, and so he has Bernie arrested and then coerces him into taking on the assignment, to the great amusement and entertainment of today's readers.

The second book in the trilogy takes place in 1938/39, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, and once again Bernie finds himself embroiled, unwillingly, with Heydrich, the Gestapo and the SS in an investigation that involves the Reichsminister, Herman Goering. But with the third book, the war is over and all the Nazi hierarchy is either dead, fled, or imprisoned. The Gestapo is gone, but to remind Bernie of how pleasant life was formerly, he now finds himself having to deal with the Gestapo’s successors, the East Berlin Secret Police called the Stazi.

These are wonderful books, excellently written, beautifully fast-paced and, as they say, un-put-downable. If you’re looking for something different to read, check them out. And if you enjoy them as much as I believe you will, you'll be delighted, as I was, to discover that as an added bonus, after a 15-year hiatus, Bernie came back in a novel called “The One From The Other” and has since appeared in two more books. So now there are six. I recommend them highly.