BERLIN NOIR by Philip Kerr; Penguin, 1994

Pick up any contemporary hardboiled detective paperback off the rack of your local Borders and glance at the dust jacket blurb-you're likely to find a variation on the following: "Readers who have been searching for the descendant to Raymond Chandler can now rejoice...!", followed by the author's name. It's a lead pipe cinch that what usually lies between the covers is an anemic imitation, or in the case of period recreations, images glommed from film noir and dialogue so lifeless in its use of American slang that the book might as well have been scribed with an embalming fluid-filled ink pen.

The elegant cover of Philip Kerr's trilogy of novels—March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiemwhich Penguin has packaged in a single volume under the title Berlin Noir, makes no such lofty claims. But maybe it should. In these three novels, Kerr has come closest to approximating the style and prodigious talent of the Philip Marlowe novels, up to and including Chandler's last great book—and masterpiece—The Long Goodbye.

Setting his books in pre and postwar Berlin (and Vienna), Kerr captures the decadence and horror inherent in the rise, collapses and corpse-rot of Nazism as seen through the eyes of Bernie Gunther, ex-bull turned private cop. The plotting is tight, the wisecracks are genuinely funny, the similes are dead on, and the sense of place is astounding, as beautifully rendered as Chandler's LA Gunther is, in many ways, a more human creation than the rather priggish Marlowe. That is, like Philip Marlowe, Bernie Gunther likes to look at women, but unlike Marlowe, Gunther also likes to be inside them. And Philip Kerr's prose describes it artfully:

I leant forward, pushed that modest hand away, and then taking hold of her smooth flanks, I pressed my mouth against the sleek filaments that mantled her sex. Standing up to kiss her I felt her hand reach down urgently for me, and winced as she peeled me back. It was too rough to be polite, to be tender, and so I responded by pushing her face first on to the bed, pulling her cool buttocks towards me and moulding her into a position that pleased me. She cried out at the moment when I plunged into her body, and her long thighs trembled wonderfully as we played out our noisy pantomime to its barnstorming denouement.

Reading Berlin Noir, the reader might mistake this for a series of novels penned by a German writer over fifty years ago, which, of course, was Kerr's intention. Intentions aside... it's astounding that he's succeeded to this degree. Unlike, say, 1994's over-hyped The Alienist—little more than a trick, to me, and as exciting as a textbook—Berlin Noir engrosses without a trace of self-awareness. It's the kind of work that juices other writers while at the same time making them jealous as hell. Finding a book like this in 1995 is, as Bernie Gunther would say, "as rare as fur on a fish." Anyone interested in genre fiction should have this one on their shelf.

-George Pelecanos


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