It was an American writer, Dashiell Hammett, who wrested the detective novel from the polite confines of British tea parlors and morning rooms, packed with sleuthing aristocrats and poisoned butlers, and put it back in the gutter where it belongs. But it took a British writer, Philip Kerr, to retool the hardboiled, wisecracking private dick pioneered by Hammett and Chandler and transport him to somewhere a lot worse than the gutter: Germany in the time of Hitler.
Welcome to Bernie Gunther's world.
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Imagine if Philip Marlowe had tried to ply his trade in Berlin in the 1930s instead of Los Angeles. He might start out poking around some stolen jewels or an unsolved murder, but what's one more body in a country ruled by the Nazis, with people disappearing into concentration camps and shallow graves at every turn? That's the conceit behind Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels, in which a cynical, morally compromised ex-cop is drawn inexorably into the machinations, corruption and desperation of Hitler's war machine.
Kerr, a prolific writer of genre-bending novels of all sorts, began the series more than twenty years ago with a stunning trilogy -- March Violets, The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem -- that followed Gunther from the rise of the Reich to the Eastern Front to the camps. After a fifteen-year hiatus, he returned to the character as he tried to make his way in the postwar world, among the intrigues of refugees and escaped war criminals in places like Argentina and Cuba, while flashing back to other dark episodes of the war.
Kerr comes to town tonight to talk about the ninth Gunther novel, A Man Without Breath, which finds Bernie investigating (at the bidding of Propaganda Minister Goebbels) the alleged massacre of Polish officers by Russian troops in the Katyn Forest in 1943. As usual, Kerr's fictional elements revolve around and ultimately serve to help illuminate an evil history that reverberates to this day.
Kerr will read from and sign copies of A Man Without Breath at 7:30 p.m. on Friday April 26, at the Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue. For more information, call 303-322-7727.
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