Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sunday Book Review - Berlin Noir

Sunday Book Review is BACK! Watch Scriptshadow on Sundays for book reviews by contributor Michael Stark. We try to find books that haven't been purchased or developed yet that producers might find interesting. Here's Stark with Berlin Noir.

“Yes, I tried to make Berlin a character in the same way that Los Angeles is a character in Chandler, which is probably where people get the idea that I copied Chandler. I do admire his descriptions of places and have always used them as an example of excellence that I set myself. It seems to me that a sense of place is essential in all good fiction. I like to think of myself as being rather similar to a painter in that I describe pictures of places.”
-- Philip Kerr interviewed by J. Sydney Jones for Scene of The Crime

Genre: Detective / Mystery
About: Bernie Gunther, a hardboiled gumshoe working 1930’s Berlin.
Writer: Philip Karr – Best selling author of high brow historical fiction, now penning the ├╝ber popular children’s series, Children of The Lamp.
Staus: ??? I’ve read that the film rights to all his books have been snapped up, but can’t find anything current. Readers please chime in.

Welcome back to another sporadic, Sunday Scriptshadow book review, where if we ran a film studio, there would be an immediate moratorium on sequels, remakes, reboots and board game adaptations; Carla Gugino would be in practically everything we shot and our favorite books would finally, finally, finally be churned into movies.

Yes, our little fantasy movie studio would probably go broke pretty fast, but at least it got us out of the house. I’d be fun to start every day like the long tracking shot that opens the Player. And, well, that, and the Carla Gugino thing.

Okay, before the main attraction, here’s a little something from the Minister of Propaganda to get you into the proper wild-goose-stepping mood:

Long time reader, Jean, recommended we take a look at Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir, a series of detective novels set in Nazi era Germany. Sounded right up my Nightmare Alley, so I gave the first of the lot, March Violets a thumb through. And, great-shades-of-my-father’s-bad-memory-must’ve–been-passed-down-one-or two-generations-Old-Testament-style, I immediately recalled why it sounded so familiar. I had read it when it first came out twenty years ago! Didn’t know Kerr had written any sequels, so I’ve been noshing on pig’s knuckles and totally absorbed in all things Bernie Gunther the past few weeks.

So, why would these novels make a great damn movie or BBC or HBO TV series? Location! Location! Location!

Take Philip Marlow and stick him in a decadent Otto Dix drawing of pre war Berlin. If you like your detective fiction dark, you can’t get much darker than this time period when life even for the uncircumcised wasn’t exactly a cabaret.

The seven Gunther novels span from Hitler’s rise in 1936 to 1950’s Cuba. It’s an extensive, well-researched scope. Sort of reminds me of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko, who sees his mother Russia change so drastically while he’s on the beat and Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, who also lives through and thus provides commentary on the sweeping social changes around his homebase of Los Angeles.

Like most traditional gumshoes, Gunther hasn’t lost his tough-guy’s sense of humor even as the Nazis’ atrocities spill across the country. Perhaps, it’s the one thing they can’t take from him. An ex-policeman, he was famous for catching Gormann, the strangler, but left the force before he was squeezed out. Seems our Bernie had little interest in joining the National Socialists, pretty much career suicide at the time.

He becomes a P.I., specializing in missing persons, which means some brisk business, cause a helluva lot of people are disappearing around Hitler’s Berlin. Bernie isn’t an anti-Semite (would we like him if he were?) and most of his clientele are Jewish, desperate souls looking for their forced disappeared loved-ones.

Kerr doesn’t break from the literary shamus tradition of the hard drinking, chick magnetizing detective taking two cases, which shall at some point intertwine. In March Violets, Gunther is hired by industrialist, Hermann Six, to find out who murdered his daughter and son-in-law, burned down their house and took off with the cluster of diamonds in their safe.

This case will criss cross with an even more famous client hiring him, Hermann Goering, who is looking for a missing informant. On a side note, we learn the Nazi also has a penchant for lion cubs and the novels of Dashiell Hammett. “He’s an American,” Goering says. “But I think he’s wonderful.”

The case becomes even more complex as Gunther discovers that Six’s son-in-law was working for the SS and that his safe contained papers that some very senior officials need to get their paws on. This leads our gumshoe further down the slippery cesspools of Nazi society, ending up in Dachau itself.

Kerr sets the book during the Olympics, giving the city a temporary facelift for the tourists. Still, the menacing underbelly is everywhere you look – the corruption, the seedy night clubs, the new autobahn that will make invasion of neighboring countries that much easier and the violent pressure cooker of anti-Semitism that’s just about to explode into an all out Kristallnacht.

The next book, The Pale Criminal, is my favorite so far of the series. Bernie is hired by a rich publisher to find out who is blackmailing her about her son’s homosexuality. Gunther, is blackmailed himself by the SS, forced to rejoin the police and lead the search for a serial killer targeting young, blond, totally Arian, German girls.

Like before, his cases will criss cross, revealing the rather sadistic, political agenda behind these murders and how it all ties in with the Nazi’s Final Solution.

A German Requiem takes ten years later and life in Post War Berlin isn’t much of an improvement under the Russians. With a hat tipped to The Third Man, Bernie travels to Vienna to help a former colleague (A Harry Lime leagued black marketer) accused of killing an American soldier.

"A good story cannot be devised it has to be distilled." -- Raymond Chandler

While I’d love to see a big screen adaptation of all these books, the way to go may be a cable series. I’d be afraid that too much of the distillation, atmosphere and historical research would get excised cause of running time. Berlin Noir is a perfect hybrid of PBS’s Mystery, TMC and the History Channel. If Kerr’s eye for detail can be correctly caught on camera, I think you’ll have an intriguing show. I’d just watch it for the angels – I mean devils – in the architecture.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[] worth the read
[X] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned:

“Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way. “– Viktor Frankl, Holocaust Survivor and Psychiatrist

Bernie Gunther is made of some pretty strong stock, surviving the battlefield, the loss of loved ones, a stint in a concentration camp and time as a POW in a Russian prison camp.

He was world weary and cynical to start with, but after everything he’s been through, he still sees every case to its conclusion. And, he still remains a decent man -- the ultimate good German.

How strong is your protagonist’s resolve? After reading Philip Kerr’s trilogy, I started questioning my own.

Stark’s further rants and ramblings can be followed in his blog: