27 July 2017

selenak: (Watchmen by Groaty)
Reading the first Bernie Gunther novel has sent me into the rabbit hole, the marathon reading from which I now slowly emerge, having grabbed all the novels my local library had available and then buying the most recent one, Prussian Blue. By which you can conclude that these novels are addictive, despite or maybe because of their very dark setting and the way Kerr handles it. I didn’t always read them in order, but that works out better than usual in a series because Kerr writes them not always in linear order as well, and several take place in different eras simultaneously (one post WWII, one during the Third Reich), each filling out different gaps in his anti hero’s life. In fact, I’m glad I read, not by intention but coincidence of availability, “The Other Side of Silence” (No.11, probably the one most located in the 1950s, with just one flashback to the 1940s) before “The Pale Criminal” (No.2, set in 1938), because while both novels feature male gay characters, the ones in No.11 are fleshed out and for the most part sympathetic, and also not just one or two but four on page and a fifth one intensely talked about, whereas in No.2 they are solely a weak coward and a villain respectively, which for a novel set during a time when gay people ended up in prison and/or camps in Germany is a highly questionable authorial choice.

(Sidenote: not that you don’t have historical basis for writing gay villains in a story set among the Nazis. I mean, Ernst Röhm. But still.)

Reading the first novel had left me wondering how Kerr would justify Bernie Gunther’s continued survival as a (mostly) ethical P.I. in one of the most brutal dictatorships in history. Turns out, he doesn’t; Bernie gets drafted back into police service by Reinhard Heydrich in 1938, which means that when WWII starts, he along with the rest of the police gets absorbed into the SS, and while he manages to get a transfer into another unit, this doesn’t happen before being exposed to and in one case participating in mass shootings. While some of the novels feature flashbacks to the P.I. period, most therefore have Bernie as part of the institutions he abhors, which simultaneously deepens his moral compromise (and self loathing) but heightens the likelihood of his survival (while also providing the novelist with excuses for letting Bernie be present at some key points he couldn’t have been as a civilian, like the discovery of the Katyn massacre, more about that in a moment). I find this a fair authorial choice – if you’re going to produce a series of novels with a German detective set mostly in the Third Reich, keeping him entirely guilt free of the morass the nation was sunk into would have felt like cheating. I also was able to buy into the premise of various upper hierarchy Nazis – Heydrich, Goebbels, Arthur Nebe – finding Bernie so useful they would want to use him because he’s That Good at crime solving and occasionally even in a dictatorship you need to figure out who actually did the deed as opposed to finding the most convenient scapegoat. (The constant in fighting and rivalry between top Nazis also plays a role in Bernie’s survival, since a good detective is also useful for getting dirt on each other.) Another way Kerr plays fair is having Bernie constantly aware of the sheer insanity of it all – trying to track down individual criminals when the entire system around you has become criminal, and murder and thievery actually are the law.

Further ramblings below the cut )

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