Angst-filled finale as Kerr bows out

Bernie is dealing with demons from his time in the trenches, dealing with them by drinking. But, being Bernie, he just about manages to hold it together.

02 July 2019 - 12:45 By Margaret von Klemperer
'Metropolis' is a fascinating glimpse into Bernie Gunther's past.
'Metropolis' is a fascinating glimpse into Bernie Gunther's past.
Image: Jonathan Ball Publishers

Published in the Witness: 24/06/2019

For those of us dedicated fans of Bernie Gunther, Philip Kerr’s world-weary and morally ambivalent character, this is a sad moment. The author died last year, tragically young, and so Bernie will have no more outings after this, his fourteenth.

We’ve followed Bernie from pre-war Berlin, both as a cop and a private detective, through his horrible war which covered places like Russia and Prague, and his post-war, peripatetic life which saw him in Vienna, Cuba, Argentina, France and back in Germany.

And now, we go back to 1928 in Berlin, with the Nazis on the rise but not yet in power and Bernie newly promoted to the homicide division of the Berlin police force.

The city is being terrorised by a serial killer who is targeting and scalping prostitutes – the kind of detail that puts Kerr’s writing on a cliff-edge of falling over into nastiness but which is saved by wit and an underlying moral decency. And there seems to be another killer in operation, taking out disabled veterans of the Great War who beg on the streets as the Weimar Republic totters into insolvency and chaos.

Bernie’s boss is the historical figure of Bernhard Weiss, who, as a Jew, is hated by the Nazis who would love to see him mess up his investigations. And one of the dead prostitutes is the daughter of a leading figure in Berlin’s vicious criminal underworld. So there is plenty of background angst to be negotiated.

Bernie is dealing with demons from his time in the trenches, dealing with them by drinking. But, being Bernie, he just about manages to hold it together, and, inevitably, finds plenty of female company along the way, including in the Theater am Schiffbauer where rehearsals for The Threepenny Opera are in full swing, the music not impressing Bernie overmuch. But it’s this kind of historical detail which makes the series so compelling.

Metropolis could be read as a standalone, but for those who know Bernie’s future, it is fascinating to have a glimpse into his past. Back in 2010, when I interviewed Kerr, he described Bernie to me by saying: “Like most people he’s not a hero. But he’s not a villain either.” And it’s this complexity, combined with the driest and darkest of humour and the brilliantly drawn background that makes the series. There may not be any more, but all are good enough for re-reading.

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