Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Gestapo and Gumshoes: Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir

GAVIN VOLURE: Because of my severe agoraphobia and debilitating wealth, I’m am forced to bring the world to me and host dinners for interesting people from all walks of life; the world of fashion (indicates someone hideously dressed)... society (indicates someone hideous)... art collecting and yelling… (indicates John McEnroe)
JOHN McENROE: Why isn’t there any good art in here?!?!? Come on!!!
GAVIN VOLURE: Business and historical fiction. (indicates Jack Donaghy)
LIZ LEMON: Really?
JACK DONAGHY: What if the Germans had won the war, Lemon?
30 Rock, "Gavin Volure"
That last question's really the nut, isn't it?

Romance writers have understood the beauty of this question for years. Everyone's read the story of a fiercely independent and intelligent young woman eventually marrying a proud and initially cold-hearted man after seeing through to his fine inner qualities. Jane Austen wrote that in Pride and Prejudice 196 years ago. But all you have to do is wonder what would happen if Miss Elizabeth Bennett was a fine Dutch lass and Mr. Darcy an English soldier, set it in the Boer War, and you have a brand new novel.*

* — Actually, you don't even have to do that. I went to a Barnes & Noble recently, and not only had the literature section been pared down by an entire shelf, it had also been overwhelmed by different authors writing dozens of sequels to Pride and Prejudice in the continued quality-free franchising of Austen.

Almost any story has the potential to be riveting if you retell it while screwing around with history. Take Pride and Prejudice and add zombies. Put Romeo and Juliet in the Federal and Confederate armies. I like Robocop—who doesn't like Robocop? He could punch people in the dick. But what if the person in question was that skull-stacking badass Tamerlane? This thing writes itself.

Story + History arithmetic explains why anyone would enjoy Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir novels. Everybody likes hard-bitten detective noir in some form — either Chandler or Hammett in print or film, or the Coen brothers doing Miller's Crossing or The Big Lebowski. Similarly, everyone watches or reads Nazi stories. They alone account for 50% of the checks Steven Spielberg cashes every month. They're the reason the History Channel exists as a profit-making entity. Write a documentary about cars, and no one will care. Write it about NAZI CARS, and you not only have a sale but a commission for nine more one-hour installments for that same channel.

So it stands to reason that Kerr's novel about a hard-bitten German gumshoe on the streets of Nazi Germany would be almost totally entertaining. Only, I'm not sure it is — at least not the way it's intended to be.

Kerr came out of nowhere in 1989 with March Violets, a detective noir story that hits all the classic points of the genre with a taut plot, interesting characters and the gloom and seething dread that typify it. His protagonist, Bernhard Gunther, is an ex-cop who's just lost the secretary he depended on (and lusted after), to marriage. He and her father share drinks and their disappointment in a groom who doesn't deserve her. As Gunther totters home, he's accosted by some heavies representing a wealthy man who wants to commission his services. The money is too good, the job discreet, the potential players a little too important. Gunther risks alienating his client, runs afoul of three police agencies, calls in favors, gets punched out, draws the attention of organized crime, beds two hot ladies, risks his life, almost gets framed and finally draws together the seemingly disparate skeins of many crimes to reveal powerful interests that at any point might have overwhelmed and damned an individual.

On its own, divorced of nouns and context, it's great stuff, universally recognizable. Plunk the whole novel in Robert Moses' planning department in postwar New York City, throw the bodies in Levittown and make the heavies some mafia guys and developers, and it would work perfectly. The book's difficulties arise from the setting: 1936, Berlin, days before the Olympic Games that are intended to showcase the glory of Hitler's Reich to the world. The heavies are Nazis and those dealing with or profiting from the regime. The title tells it all: "March Violets," the sneering name that old-guard Nazis used to dismiss those whose careers and party ambitions bloomed in March, 1933, when the Nazis assumed emergency powers, essentially dissolved the Reichstag and became the only game in town. The book's name indicates collusion and whoredom, a whole town on the make and hand-in-glove with the worst people in history.

Which is precisely the problem. Kerr's sense of history and place are very good. He captures the streets and ghettoes of Berlin well, presenting a city that was still multicultural and racially and socially dynamic. He understands the stresses put on each group under the regime, playing them against the prevailing diktat of the times, just as Gunther plays them for information and needed tools. Those who are used to thinking of Germany from 1933-1945 as Nazis and "only Nazis" and "nobody and nothing else" will get something of a working understanding of the social strata of Germany at the time. But whether it works dramatically is a big question each reader will have to ask himself.

Part of what makes the noir detective such an iconic and great character is that he's essentially an American one. We believe we live in a free society with free control of government and a free hand in our fates, but the American gumshoe knows that's all smoke and mirrors, the pap that those in power feed all us dupes to keep us in line. Take the movie Chinatown. The most democratically available necessity for survival is water, yet the democratically elected Los Angeles city fathers are being manipulated by a water swindle in which the powerful are crushing poor farmers to get access to land that the city will have to buy at hyperinflated prices to bring water to its citizens. Water is denied the honest farmer in a land-and-money grab that benefits the wealthy via an act of civic responsibility ostensibly meant to bring water to all. Only private detective Jake Gittes sees this: that government, farming, even the stuff that comes out of the tap... it's all a rigged game, and us poor folks are the biggest schnooks of all. In a story like that, Gittes represents the natural hero, the American for the America that should be. He relies on his wits and his tenacity to put food on his plate, bed the hot lady, stick up for justice and keep him in swank hats.

Counterpoint makes the story timeless. The American dream of government by and for the people rings hollowly when government plays the role of mark for plutocrats, just as government acts provide the impetus for killing and ruining the least of us. Independent investigation and critical reevaluation appear all the more vital when the free and open society is run like a three-cart monte game. If everyone already knows the game is rigged, what the detective finds out signifies nothing more than what they can see by opening a door to the street outside.

This dilemma underscores most of the questionable tension in March Violets. Nazi Germany is already perceived as so monolithically bad that the reader doesn't need The Last Honest Man to point that out. Sure, being an honest man then was a little difficult, but it doesn't take a lot to achieve that distinction. At best, Bernhard Gunther lets us in on the fact that the culture of Germany was nothing so undifferentiated and universally evil as the History Channel might lead us to believe, but that observation doesn't work too well with the style of story presented. Kerr didn't write a book to rehabilitate a country in spite of poor electoral choices, venal complicity or geographic misfortune: he wrote a potboiler. Yet the dramatic forces in his potboiler upend the noir formula. We know everyone in charge is crooked already. There's no "reveal" there.

Given that, it's easy to question whether March Violets is a little exploitive. Gunther runs afoul of the Kripo (Kriminalpolizei), Sipo (Sicherheitspolizei), Goering and Himmler's territorial feuds, the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei) and a concentration camp. In addition to committing the common historical fiction crime of associating the main character with famous names left and right, the story feels at times like it piggybacks on legitimately horrible things to effect an atmosphere that could have been created without them. While Kerr surely did not sit back from his PC as his pupils dilated into dollar signs while he contemplated Gestapo murders of Jews and homosexuals, the book's reliance on this unmistakable malice demands at least a pause. Did we need this? Why?

I think the answer is: the book would sell. I don't think Kerr was mercenary in his decision; rather that he recognized the low demand for genuine noir (and the glut of bad detective fiction out there), and recognized the worth of the formula laid out above. Take a good story, add history, make it seem unique and fresh. You could rewrite this story to fit almost every major city in the world at dozens of different points in history, and 95% of it would still work completely. The main difference is that people don't care about modern-day Rio or Paris or 1970s Chicago, but almost everyone says, "Oooh, what's this?" when there's a swastika on the book cover.

Does recognizing this phenomenon lessen the book?—is it unfair to harp on it? It's hard to say. Kerr has written at least three more novels about Gunther, taking him into the post-war period (where his former contacts with Nazi officials leads others to suspect that he himself was complicit in their crimes), and it seems reasonable to suggest that those books might address issues of exploitation vis-a-vis the subject matter and take fuller advantage of the genre's tropes in contradistinction to the nightmare that was the Nazi regime. For now, then, it's probably best to engage the book on its other merits/demerits.

On the subject of the former, as said, Kerr does his best work with the atmosphere of the time. He's done his homework about signage, broadcasting, publications, street alterations to the Unten den Linden, uniforms and the general public attitude. Far from being a world devoid of Jews and political opponents, there are still agitators and graffiti artists as well as extensive miserable ghettoes. Even though Dachau exists, Kerr knows that the Final Solution is still six years away, and that Germany is still in a kind of limbo between naïve dismissal of Hitler's rhetorical extremism and proof that it was no mere linguistic flourish. He also has the chesspiece aspects of noir down pat. But sometimes his fondness for noir also leads him astray.

The first thing one notices is that Gunther's got a mouth. That's fine: that's what all good noir detectives have — lip, moxie, a tongue that goes writing checks the ass winds up having to cash. The problem is that he seems to have one all out of whack for his time. Kerr's committing the historical-fiction sin of including lots of famous people that know his characters for some reason wouldn't be so glaring nor so troublesome if it weren't for the fact that Gunther shoots his mouth off at them. Having Hermann Göring show interest in him is enough of a stretch; having Göring chuckle at Gunther's cheeky willingness to be a smartass is another thing entirely.

But taking noir elements and cranking them up seems to be something Kerr does as a rule. The smart-mouth ripostes read like just another riff on his intensely stylized narration. Put simply: Kerr likes his similes. There are similes in almost every paragraph. One gets the sense that he had some kind of automated alert function in his copy of Word that notified him every time he'd gone 500 words without saying something like, "He a nose that looked like it'd gotten more pockmarks in it than every bit of land between the Germans and English at the Somme." Some of them are genuinely very funny, some provide the instant physical cue that absolutely defines the character, and others stand out jarringly in a way that makes you suspect writing them was obligatory or compulsive. There are simply so many of these sorts of descriptions that the book occasionally reads more like a pastiche of noir than noir itself.

Ultimately, these things are pretty forgivable. The similes and thin-lipped streetwise descriptions provoke a sigh here or there, but most amuse enough to make the clunkers easy to sit through. The smart-mouthed exchanges that try the patience of Nazi officials and readers' willingness to suspend disbelief aren't so numerous that other, funny exchanges don't make up for them. The severest charge against Kerr might be that he's appropriated genuine horror to make a more marketable book, but even so, it's questionable how far that charge need be applied. For one thing, subsequent books might address it. For another, he doesn't even remotely approach the cynical exploitation of other writers and, if anything, makes readers aware of the greater social dynamism of the Germany of the time. About the most anyone can say after the first book is that he neglected to avail himself of the depth that the context offered the genre and instead took a uniquely American look at the rigged game of politics and flatly applied it to one of the most rigged political systems in history. For now, it's just a missed opportunity, an incomplete exploration of the topics available with the tools available.

These concerns aside, the book presents an interesting riff on classic noir. Stripped from its context, the story would still work, and the characters would still be entertaining and sympathetic. Independent of setting and political concerns, readers will find a taut story with the misdirection and runaround they expect from detective noir. The language might be a kind of fond imitation of Chandler and Hammett, but the core elements are in the best tradition of both.

Rating: 3.5
I want to rate this book higher, but a couple things keep standing in my way. The similes got to me after a while. The over-stylized writing devoted to seeming "noir" felt like symptoms of a broader first-novel disease. It's easy to see where Kerr was liable to trim certain aspects down and play up others, meaning that this book should naturally be his weakest offering. Also, as said, the potential exploitive aspects of the ugliness of the Nazi regime nettled me when it was obvious how well the plot could work in any other place or period. Given how much he had to work with, how much he could have done and how he used those elements essentially as color or supplement to a plot that didn't especially need them made me feel like he missed some pretty big marks. Regardless, it's a fun book, one anyone can enjoy. I suspect I'll read it again in a few years, and I'm sure I'll buy a copy for friends who like the detective story and are also history wonks. I just hope, and expect, that the series gets better from here. (Speaking of which, the below link goes to an anthology of the first three Berlin Noir novels.)