Philip Kerr Interview

Crime writing is predicated upon Something Happening. Theft, murder- acts that violate our mutually agreed upon social contract. Philosophically, the definition of ‘crime’ is fluid. My learned friend at the Pritzker Museum and Library of Military History, Martin Billheimer, astutely wrote that “What we call crime is the right of power to private means.” When presented with the question, is this crime?’ The next questions must be: On whose authority? Who decides how and when to enforce laws? And then, what if, the lawmakers are also the law-breakers? When it comes to writing about the crimes of bonafide war criminals, these questions take on potent significance.

Philip Kerr‘s singular creation, Bernie Gunther, is a character who believes that Law exists yet is often unsure where he stands on that long arch that spans the chasm between its moral existence and practical application. Kerr’s twelfth Bernie Gunther novel, Prussian Blue, finds the Zelig-like detective searching for a murderer amongst murderers.

Gunther’s initial appearance in 1989 launched Kerr as a new voice to the crime-writing genre. His work is a heady mix of razor-sharp dialogue, actual war criminals, and an obsessive attention to the minute details of history. Kerr’s Gunther is never nearly wholly innocent and always guilty. As a man lost both to and in time, he relies on the one thing that compels him to continue- find the evidence and discover the truth.

Philip Kerr recently answered questions about his new book, PRUSSIAN BLUE, his relationship with the character he created, and the relative nature of crime. Our exchange has been edited for length and clarity.

Christina Ward: In PRUSSIAN BLUE, with its dual timeline, we see Bernie Gunther reconciling his past actions with the present yet unable to escape that past. As a character, Bernie Gunther occupies, primarily, a morally neutral space. He has a personal code that informs his decisions, yet he’s aware of the futility of his actions and existence. His actions are (mostly) based on situational dynamics.
Other reviewers have described Gunther as the ‘only honest man in Nazi Germany’ yet in the arc of the series, and in PRUSSIAN BLUE, Bernie kills people as he is also searching for a murderer. How does Bernie define murder? Does it differ from your definition?

Philip Kerr: It’s not always a crime to commit murder if you’ll permit a Bernie-ism. Some people need killing. I don’t have an absolute moral code on this. As a former lawyer and student of jurisprudence, I am aware of the complexity of this issue from a reading of many specious cases e.g. the Speluncean Explorers (look it up, it’s a maze of legal obfuscations). I’m not a Sergeant York on this or to choose a more recent example, Desmond Doss.

I’m afraid that murdering Hitler, while still murder, seems entirely justifiable. And that it is also permitted to kill people who are trying to kill you. Doesn’t that make sense? There were plenty of others too who needed killing. I think we have tied ourselves up in knots when it comes to the ethics of killing people. We have created an absolute moral standard on this that says murder is always wrong. I can think of plenty of people today we could cheerfully murder, and the world would be a better place. I don’t think this makes me a fascist, but a pragmatist.

Having said all of that, I do believe we should be much slower to deploy military force than we are. I don’t believe in capital punishment, but I do think we should not strenuously strive to keep alive long-term prisoners who wish to end their lives.
To come back to Bernie, it seems to me that Bernie is an honest man and to encapsulate all of the above murder is sometimes a truly honest act. It’s habitual thieves who need to be incarcerated for long periods of time, not murderers who often only do it once and regret it for the rest of their lives.

CW: A through-line I’ve observed in the entire Gunther series is that ultimately, only Gunther cares about solving the crime. Yes, there are ‘innocents’ affected by the fallout of the crime, but from a cop’s perspective, there isn’t a true resolution to the crime. There is no justice.
What is it about the concept and structure of a murder-mystery that you enjoy? How does the constraint of genre either help or hinder your writing?

PK: I am familiar with those, yes, although I’m afraid I don’t subscribe to the idea of rules and games. The only rule for me is to write a write a great sentence and a great paragraph. Most murder mysteries I don’t enjoy at all. I could give a damn ‘who dunnit’. I’m more interested in entertainment and in sneaking tiny author messages into the text.
My opportunities to have my philosophical moment. I think the great thing – perhaps the only great thing – about murder mysteries is that stories have a beginning a middle and an end. Too often many modern novels forget the story and the need to keep the reader’s attention. Let’s face it; the reader has so much competing for his or more likely her attention now. It’s madness to make too difficult for the poor sods.

CW: I’d like to talk about the banality of goodness. This is interesting to me- as I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home of the very active Bund before World War Two and a culturally German city. (Also the HQ of Crimespree Magazine.) I’ve heard stories of relatives’ weekend trips to the POW camp to visit captured German cousins. And more often than one would think, saw pictures in a playmates’ home of a grandad in a Wehrmacht uniform.
Again, this circles the questions of morality and moral judgments. In writing about this time-period for thirty odd years, has your understanding or opinion about the concept of individual responsibility changed? As it applies specifically to the World War 2 period? For someone growing up under the cultural influence of Nazi-dictated culture, do we give those people ‘a pass’ for repugnant ideas or actions?

PK: I think that the German people certainly had their suspicions about what was going to happen as early as 1932. The Munich Post, a newspaper which consistently opposed Hitler, published an editorial called The Final Solution which detailed the probable fate of Jews in Europe should the Nazis came to power. This paper had a circulation of 50,000 – not big by the standards of the day – but given the depression and the fact that most papers were read by two or three people, I think we can assume that perhaps as many as 150,000 read this story.
Also, I have been to Dachau concentration camp which is slap bang in the middle of a small town of the same name. I can’t believe the people there had no knowledge of what was happening. Contrast all this with the excellence of the way Germany has handled its post-war record, the way it has not shied away from its war guilt. The brilliant moral guidance provided by the USA and Great Britain contrasts very well with the stupidity of how Al Qaeda fighters have been dealt with.
I like the phrase ‘banality of goodness’; Bernie is the kind of hero I am interested in writing about because like most interesting characters he is not consistently good. You can only have a character who holds your attention when he’s beating himself up about something. (Meanwhile, I certainly think we should give the folk in Milwaukee a free pass.)

CW: Americans tend to embrace a ‘black and white’ public morality. Gunther’s stories chip away at the narrative of righteous characters acting without impunity. Collectively, the novels explore the ideas and consequences of shared blame and responsibility. Many of the characters, especially the Nazis, are portrayed with no moral ambiguity. They are committed to their philosophy regardless of the moral bankruptcy. Others, choose to ‘go along to get along’ is the very Midwestern phrase that comes to mind.
In PRUSSIAN BLUE, Gunther faces repeated situations where he is given No Choice yet within that constraint he consistently finds a ‘third way’ that allows him both survival and a semblance of personal moral authority. Have you found that American readers react differently than British readers who then may react differently than German readers to Gunther’s choices? Do readers challenge you about Gunther’s choices or actions in a situation?

PK: Yes, I am sometimes challenged, and I always enjoy the debate. In the beginning, the books were largely written because I wanted to ask myself the question ‘what would you have done?’ It’s difficult. We all like to think we would act like heroes and stand up for right. But the reality is different when you see a squad of SA men assaulting an old Jew outside a synagogue. It’s difficult to go up to those men and to try and put a stop to that. Moral ambiguity is what makes the stories interesting. These are the dilemmas I choose in order to give the stories a sharper edge.
I have a hard-core German fan base of about 8000. It won’t get any bigger. Germans want to move on, and can’t say I blame them. However, and this is the important point, you can’t move on from something as large as World War 2. The hard fact of the matter is this: World War 2 is becoming a bigger and more important subject in the world. It is analogous to the Trojan war in this respect.
Five hundred years after the Trojan War, Homer was ‘writing’ the Iliad, and the story is still with us today and forms an important part of the Western artistic canon. My prediction after thirty years of writing Bernie Gunther is that people will be writing about this war in 500 year’s time. This is the Trojan war de no jours.

CW: I’m fascinated by the concept of Widerstand. (Widerstand is the idea of small acts of simple and passive resistance adding up to cause change.) Some historians have discounted the idea as a fig-leaf for minimal resistance to egregious acts. Others have taken it as a larger, moral concept that people resist in small ways by the mere act of refusing to accept a small offense. In PRUSSIAN BLUE and the previous novels, the peripheral characters display Widerstand toward the Nazi regime. Sometimes at their peril, oft times with a shrug.
It is well-known that you do yeoman’s work researching historical documents and ephemera. When writing those characters, and I’m thinking of the cadre of townspeople in PRUSSIAN BLUE, do you think that those small acts of defiance are more about human nature than a larger statement of resistance? Conversely, is the concept of casual resistance when it is an easy choice, an academic construct created to give cover to moral laziness?

PK: Casual resistance is sometimes the only game in town. Bernie’s main act of resistance is his wit. His humour. Which is typically Berlin, by the way. Hitler never liked Berliners. Didn’t trust them. But no more did Bismarck or the Kaiser. Berliners have a very black sense of humour which is Bernie’s one true act of resistance. Otherwise, there wasn’t much resistance, let’s face it; and only when Hitler was failing.
For example, after June 1940 Hitler could do no wrong in the eyes of the Wehrmacht. But after Stalingrad, the tide turned, and opposition grew. Hitler bought the opposition off with his cheque book. Gave top generals money for their loyalty. Among the general populace, resistance was even more problematic. It was as impossible to resist the Nazis as it was to resist the GDR (a/k/a East Germany). The Stasi was even worse than the Gestapo. Everything looks easy when you are an academic sitting in your ivory tower and writing about the period. That’s why I write these novels; to bring things down to the street level.

CW: Objectively, world governments in the past 30 years have shifted to the Right. Short-sighted folks often forget that the first stage of any regime is an election. I can’t help but ask, do you see correlations in current western politics to the events during the ‘Birth of Nations’ time-period that gave rise to the Weimar Republic and then fascism?

PK: Some governments have shifted to the right, but not many. We don’t have one in Britain, and I don’t believe you really have one in the US. Trump hasn’t arrested 10,000 Democrats and put them in a concentration camp; nor will he. No one is being put to death for writing an anti-Trump opinion editorial in the NYT.
But as soon as Hitler came to power the guillotine at Plotzensee was working overtime. I hear cries of

Plotzensee Prison execution room.

how terrible things are, and yet we live in age of high employment, low infant mortality, increased life expectancy and – here’s the thing – we’re not engaged in a world war. One hundred years ago the US joined the allies in the World War One. 109,000 Americans died, and 250,000 were maimed or seriously injured. As FDR once said we have nothing to fear except fear itself. Amen.

CW: A theme throughout PRUSSIAN BLUE is Gunther’s identity as a detective, a solver of crimes. As he talks about his development as a detective, he notes that it is both art and science. This holds historically true to early 20th century German theories of crime and punishment; Crime-fighting was very much about rehabilitation and trying to discover which, if any, criminals could be rehabilitated. This concept, which you explored in 1992’s Philosophical Investigations, leaves some unnerving logical conclusions. (Can criminality be identified at birth? Are people unredeemable from their deeds?) My question goes back to the moral idea of justice and who receives it. The modern era is littered with instances of fundamental unfair and cruel laws.
As explored via the Gunther stories, do you see The Law as an animating moral force in Bernie? Maybe his only touchstone to morality? Is The Law a false god?

PK: In Germany law enabled EVERYTHING. The Nazis were very particular about making laws to make what they did LEGAL. This says a great deal about Lawyers.
In Germany, it wasn’t just that lawyers created laws like the Nuremberg Laws, it was lawyers and judges who often commanded SS death squads. When you make something legal, you hand your moral responsibility to Society and say, ‘I don’t have to think about this’.
I tend to think the only justice that exists is rough justice. Everything else is law and law usually has nothing at all to do with justice. Sorry to sound like a lawyer again. Lawyers are people who manage to hold two completely contrary opinions without the need for psychiatry.
I think we are moving into an age when lawyers apply their own convenient legal fictions to their clients and say, ‘this man suffers from a small brain abnormality which diminishes his moral responsibility’. We need, all of us, to own up to our misdeeds more and to be personally responsible.

CW: Fans of Bernie Gunther, and this holds true for other beloved fictional characters, take it very personally when creators take the character to places they don’t believe ‘truthful’. It is an odd phenomenon. Bernie Gunther even has a fan-created website devoted to his exploits and where readers indulge in critiques at a microscopic level.
Have you found yourself considering readers feelings or opinions when writing for Bernie? Either to soothe or ruffle a perceived criticism?

PK: Never ever; NMFP – not my fucking problem.

CW: It’s safe to say that people are often both ignorant and delusional about the minutiae of history. Besides ‘getting it right’ as possible to satisfy yourself as a writer, have you found people rejecting verifiable facts about the frayed edges of the commonly accepted narrative of the Nazi-era that are highlighted in the Gunther stories?

PK: Not often. I don’t make many mistakes. But I sometimes put deliberate mistakes into the texts in order to catch out people who pinch my research. No names.

CW: You’ve recently created a new character-driven series (the Scott Manson books). Are there other characters you’ve created that are clamoring for a story?

PK: I think I write too much. I am the living example of what happens when writing becomes an obsessive-compulsive disorder. If anything is clamouring inside me it’s the real me – if there’s anything left of that person – saying take a break, you don’t need to drive yourself so hard. Like the mouse in Dumbo. Unfortunately for me has a very small voice.