A Funeral in Berlin*

Written by Ali Karim

*Actually Philip Kerr’s funeral was held in Wimbledon, England

Forgive my artistic license in titling this post; but as Mike Ripley and I paid our respects, following the tragic passing [at such an early age] of Philip Kerr – I reflected upon when we were first introduced to his character Bernie Gunther, which was set in 1936 Berlin in March Violets [published 1989].

Crime Writer, and literary commentator The Talented Mr Mike Ripley and I made our way to St Mary’s Church Wimbledon to pay our respects to an extraordinary talent in the genre that is Crime & Thriller – Philip Kerr.

The Crime and Thriller community has been reeling when we heard of Phil’s tragic passing aged 62, which has been widely reported in the press internationally.

Perhaps some of the most elegant words came from publisher and literary critic Otto Penzler in a wonderful essay / eulogy at Crime Reads

The world of mystery fiction can only lament the extinguished flame of one of its most outstanding practitioners with the sudden death of Philip Kerr, who died on Friday at the age of sixty-two.

In 1989, a young British journalist performed a magic trick. Though born in Edinburgh and living in London, Kerr wrote the nearest pastiche to Raymond Chandler’s quintessentially American literary style yet achieved, transcending the scores—no, hundreds—who had attempted it before he did.

Even more remarkably, the setting was Nazi Germany in 1936, not exactly the place one would expect to read about a wise-cracking, self-deprecating private eye. Bernie Gunther made his debut in March Violets (1989). Drawn into a case while still drunk from a wedding reception, he walked into a rich man’s mansion when the butler attempted to take his hat. “I’ll hang on to it, if you don’t mind,” he said. “It’ll help to keep my hands off the silver.”

Read More from Otto Penzler HERE

Spending the day with Raconteur Mike Ripley is a pleasure, as we shared anecdotes and memories of Phil Kerr, who was a real ‘character’. I said to Ripley, it is the eccentric, the odd among our friends and colleagues that make us appreciate the absurdity of existence, for they are the people we remember, for they make us smile as well as think, and force us to question our own value system.

Mike Ripley was one of the group of new emerging talent in British Crime Writing in the late 1980s / early 1990s, as was Phil Kerr. Mike pays his own respects to Philip Kerr in his April column of Getting Away with Murder – read it HERE

For me, my fascination with the work of Philip Kerr originated in the 1990s after reading Gridiron [1995] and A Philosophical Investigation [1992] which landed him the tag-line of ‘The British Michael Crichton’, and Hollywood beckoned with film options sold in heated auctions, but they languished in ‘development hell’ never making it to the silver screen. 

Though it would be Bernard [Bernie] Gunther that would be what attracted me, and many, many other writers. It was the Berlin Trilogy of March Violets [1989], The Pale Criminal [1990] and A German Requiem [1991] that embedded themselves into my mind, like shards of broken glass. I would feel the sharp edges from time to time, as they are extraordinary narratives featuring a former German Police Officer, turned Private Eye. I loved the cynical, thought-provoking tales of Germany before, during and after the Second World War. It was the Bernie Gunther character fascinated me, as he was an outsider in a world he didn’t understand, and has to survive the most horrific of societal situations, Nazism being the acceptable face of that society with its cruelty and violence to others.

I got speaking to Carodoc King [after the service]; Phil’s long term literary Agent as I was always curious why he didn’t return to Bernie Gunther until 2006 [The One From Another]. King explained that Phil grew weary of his creation, and went off to write in other genres, standalones, techno-thrillers, YA, and non-fiction.

I would bump into Phil Kerr many times, and we spoke about Bernie Gunther, and what made him tick, as an outsider. Phil recounted his early childhood in Scotland; though a Scotsman, he was different to the other kids in school. He was swarthy, and we would laugh as we both had analogous experiences, exchanging our various racist incidents, the name-calling, and the physical violence. He said “but it bred strength of character”. It also steered us toward literature, and escape into the worlds of thrillers, horror, science-fiction and of course crime fiction. Though many of the names were hateful, we also had affectionate ones. He was called “Rastas” for a period, while I was “Cassius” and "Clay" [a 1960s allusion to the boxer Mohammed Ali, who was formerly Cassius Clay, as well as nod to my skin colour], a name that taught me to fight. These names were not only used by fellow pupils, but also the teachers. 

I told Phil, that his tough school experiences [which he widely recounted] had become character traits, now visible in Bernie Gunther, which would always make him smile, as he had a love-hate relationship with his creation, the outsider, the stranger who does not fit into the world he finds himself in, and is not accepted; a feeling I too share, from time to time.

Psychiatrists often say “Give me a child till the age of eight, and I will give you back a man” and this adage is one I believe in.

Carodoc King also asked how Jeff Peirce of The Rap Sheet managed to get Phil to agree to an interview, as Phil disliked talking to the press or self-promotion as he was always working away at his novels. I explained that it was when I was chatting with my friend and colleague in Seattle on my phone at a CWA function. I passed my cell-phone to Phil Kerr when Jeff asked me to give him his congratulations for winning the 2009 CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger. Carodoc King said that the feature “The Intimidating Mr Kerr” was extraordinary and that it was truly insightful – READ HERE

Jeff Peirce has been a long term Bernie Gunther reader / reviewer for many years, and I was delighted to hear that he finally got to meet Phil in person – READ HERE

So it is little surprise that Jeff’s eulogy of the work of Philip Kerr is most enlightening – READ HERE

So we return to Philip Kerr’s funeral ...

It was a very sunny day in London, and the attendance mainly friends and family members, though we met up with Jane Wood his editor, Carodoc King, and saw Sebastian Faulks, as well as John Sessions.

There were readings from his children, Charlie, William and Naomi and the priest recounted how Phil Kerr found faith later in life.

We were invited by the family back to their house, where they had catering and drinks for the guests. I got talking to the team from Quercus Publishing, including his longstanding British Editor Jane Wood. She confirmed that the final Bernie Gunther novel “Metropolis” has been delivered, and she confirmed Carodoc King’s assertion that “…..METROPOLIS is the finest and most complex and thrilling Bernie Gunther novel….”

So it was soon time to leave, so before heading off, Mike Ripley and I thanked Quercus Publishing and Phil’s family for a memorable celebration though sad, for we came to represent the very best wishes from Shots Magazine, The Rap Sheet, January Magazine and Deadly Pleasures Magazine [as we contribute to them].

One part of Carodoc King’s comments echoes in my mind, and is one that I deeply believe to be true “….despite all the published work of Philip Kerr, it will be Bernie Gunther that he will be remembered for….”

If you haven’t discovered these extraordinary and award-winning and award-nominated work then here they are, and all available from Quercus Publishing

The Berlin Trilogy

March Violets (1989)          

The Pale Criminal (1990)  

A German Requiem (1991)

The One from the Other (2006)    

A Quiet Flame (2008)         

If the Dead Rise Not (2009)          

Field Gray (2010)    

Prague Fatale (2011)         

A Man Without Breath (2013)       

The Lady from Zagreb (2015)       

The Other Side of Silence (2016)

Prussian Blue (2017)         

Greeks Bearing Gifts (2018)

Metropolis (2019)  

Our Thoughts remain for Phil’s wife, novelist Jane Thynne and the family at this troubling time

More information from BernieGunther.com

Text and Photos © 2006 – 2017 A Karim

Philip Kerr

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