A Guide to Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series

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The death of Philip Kerr in 2018 was a tragic loss for the crime fiction world. The author of over 30 books since his debut in 1989, Kerr is best known for his 14 novels novels featuring ex-cop turned private detective Bernhard ‘Bernie’ Gunther, who finds his progress up the ranks of the Berlin Kriminalpolizei interrupted by the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.

Gunther hates the Nazis, but he sees that as a character strength. In addition, it’s the real world that he lives in. His talent is solving crimes, what surrounds this is there to be negotiated – something he does in various ways throughout the series.

Kerr’s death from cancer in March 2018 came shortly before the publication of the 13th novel, Greeks Bearing Gifts. It was lined up for publication at that point but there was another book in the wings and April 2019 saw the release of Metropolis, which Kerr completed shortly before his death.

Below we bring you a book-by-book, blow-by-blow guide to Gunther’s career…

March Violets – 1989

The first novel is set in 1936, the year The Nazis won their second election with 98.8% of the vote. The Prussian Criminal Police are being merged with the Gestapo to become the SiPo, and Berlin is to host the Olympic Games. March Violets introduces ex-cop turned private detective Gunther, who is hired by industrialist Hermann Six to locate a stolen necklace. The search for the necklace turns up a series of corrupt officials and criminals whose aim is to uncover material for blackmail. Gunther, who left the police as the organisation came under Nazi control, finds it harder and harder to avoid working for the party he hates. A 250-page read, it was reprinted in 2004.
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The Pale Criminal – 1990

The Pale Criminal is set two years after March Violets, with Bernie Gunther working with another ex-cop to help the owner of a publishing house find out who is blackmailing her using homosexual love letters her son sent to his psychiatrist. Despite turning his back years earlier on police work, his former boss Arthur Nebe convinces Gunther to work for Reinhard Heydrich Nebe and Heydrich are actual historical figures – two of the most evil men in the Nazi party, an organisation with more than its fair share of evil men.
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A German Requiem – 1991

In A German Requiem, Gunther returns from World War II where he spent the majority of his time in a Soviet prisoner of war camp in Ukraine. The year is 1947 and Gunther finds postwar Germany and Austria struggling under allied occupation with a number of ex-Nazis in prominent positions. Arthur Nebe returns to Gunther’s life, despite Bernie being sure that he died somewhere on the Eastern Front. The fall of the Nazi Party has not made men like Nebe any less evil. Many have found new identities, complete with new dental records or even new teeth, to hide from their past. Gunther isn’t a former Nazi, but in the eyes of many he is just as bad, and for the first of many times in the series his dislike of the Nazis starts to sound like Nebe and his ilk’s denial of their past.
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Berlin Noir – 1994

In 1994, March Violets, The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem were reissued as a set under the title Berlin Noir.
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The One from the Other – 2006

Fifteen years after the publication of A German Requiem, Philip Kerr returned to Gunther with The One From The Other, again set in post-war Germany. In it, Kerr steps up the Chandler-esque dialogue and complex plotting that won so many fans in the original Berlin Noir trilogy. But while the first trilogy sometimes reads as irreverent satire, The One From The Other is bigger and darker, signalling a step from the compact, quick feel of the earlier novels to a much more complex and historically rich style. It’s 1949 and memories of the War are unavoidable in Germany, especially in Gunther’s new role as a hotel operator in Dachau, home of the first Nazi concentration camp. The detective finds himself mixed up again and again with former Nazis, a fact which leads to him losing a finger and seriously looking into the rat lines, the illicit means that former Nazis used to escape punishment by migrating to South America.
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A Quiet Flame – 2008

The fifth Bernie Gunther novel is the first to jump backwards and forwards between two time periods, a trope that Kerr uses to great effect as the series goes on. The action alternates between 1950, shortly after the close of The One From The Other, and 1932-33, when Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor. The government of Juan Perón has extended a hand to former Nazis, including those like Gunther who have been accused of war crimes. Although in his case accusations are false, they’re close enough to the truth to require him to leave Germany. Gunther finds that even in Argentina he can’t escape the past. A brutal murder and the disappearance of a young girl bring back memories of another crime from his police days, and he must face the possibility that the perpetrator of both crimes across two decades and two continents is the same.
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If the Dead Rise Not – 2009

If The Dead Rise Not continues the flashback theme, with the action divided between Berlin in 1934 and Havana in 1954. In 1934 the Nazis have achieved a propaganda coup by securing the 1936 Olympics, and along with the head of the US Olympic Committee decide to gloss over the racism and anti-semitism of the German rulers in order to ensure popular support for the Olympics across the Atlantic. In 1954, Batista has gained power in Cuba, supported by the CIA, and is turning the country into a haven for American corruption and organised crime. After being removed from Argentina, Gunther finds himself in Havana, once again struggling to outrun his past. If The Dead Rise Not proves that corruption and evil know nothing of national borders.
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Field Grey – 2010

Field grey was the colour of the uniforms worn by the guards in German concentration camps. In fact, they were made by Hugo Boss. Gunther spends a lot of the novel locked up in a series of brutal hell holes. First he’s captured by the Americans for attempting to smuggle a woman from Cuba to Haiti (a job he performed with little willingness), then extradited to Germany to face charges. The action also flashes back to Gunther’s time in Dachau, his time at a brutal camp on the Soviet front, as well as a stint in a French POW camp. This is the darkest of what is already a very bleak series, but even through all this Gunther’s cynical humour prevails, even as the -post-War occupying powers imprison him in the cell that Hitler was incarcerated in before his rise to power. This is also more historically dense than earlier books, and even includes a couple of bad guys taken straight from history books, with the detailed research perfectly woven in.
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Prague Fatale – 2011

It’s 1941 and Gunther is back in Berlin, and back at his old desk investigating homicides. The city has changed in the years he was away, with the Nazis in control everywhere. Gunther finds himself with no choice but to do as the Nazis say, including his old boss Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SD and one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. When Heydrich orders Gunther to accompany him to Prague, it’s an invitation Gunther would rather do without, but finds himself unable to refuse. The weekend in the Czech countryside turns sour when a body is discovered in a locked room, and Gunther must solve the unsolvable crime or risk Heydrich’s wrath. Prague Fatale is more straightforward than some of the earlier Gunther novels, without so many flashbacks, but Kerr’s research and plotting still shines through.
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A Man Without Breath – 2013

Once again, A Man Without Breath is more straightforward than some of the earlier novels, this time set entirely in 1943. After the fall of Stalingrad it appears that the tide of the war is swinging and the Nazis hold on power is in danger of slipping. The Nazis are after a propaganda coup to win back morale, and hit upon the massacre of Polish officers by the Red Army in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk. Gunther is hired by Joseph Goebbels to investigate the crime, and finds himself in Smolensk among aristocratic Prussian officers knowing that one of them is a cold blooded killer, who may be after Gunther himself… Read our review here.
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The Lady From Zagreb – 2015

In the tenth Gunther novel Bernie travels further afield, this time to Switzerland and Croatia, where he must carry out favours for propaganda minister Goebbels, who is now in control of the German film industry. The book opens later, on the French Riviera in 1956, with Gunther reminiscing about his relationship with beautiful German actress Dalia Dresner. It proves that he is able to fall in love, even if the relationship is doomed from the start. The scope of this is even wider than earlier novels, looking into the atrocities committed in the Balkans way back to the 1940s, where Gunther finds that there is evil on all sides. Read our review.
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The Other Side of Silence – 2016

It’s back to 1956, where Gunther is working as a hotel detective in the French Riviera. He is invited, rather forcefully, to be the fourth in a bridge game including author W Somerset Maugham. But it’s not just a bridge partner he wants, it’s some of Gunther’s professional expertise. Maugham is being blackmailed, either due to his unorthodox lifestyle or his history of working with the British Secret Service. Even in 1956, the shadow that had hung over Europe for decades still remains, with the Soviets edging closer to becoming a full nuclear power, and former Nazis and evil men from Gunther’s past who keep popping up wherever he finds himself to remind him of his past.
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Prussian Blue – 2017

Again in 1956, with flashes back to 1939, Gunther is once more dragged into a job he doesn’t really want to do by a man with dark ties to the Nazi party. Ernst Mielke is now deputy head of the Stasi in East Germany and wants Gunther to repay an old favour by traveling to London and poisoning a female agent. She is a mutual acquaintance of theirs. This is one job that Bernie doesn’t want to be drawn into, so he makes a run for the German border where another old acquaintance, Friedrich Korsch, a former colleague now also working for the Stasi, is trying to find him. When we cut back to 1939, Korsch and Gunther are investigating a murder in the lead up to Hitler’s 50th birthday celebrations. The murder occurs on the terrace of Hitler’s own house, but it is in 1956 that the puzzle pieces all fall into place. Read the CFL review.
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Greeks Bearing Gifts – 2018

In the penultimate Bernie Gunther novel, published shortly after Kerr’s death last year, Gunther is a claims investigator for a large German insurance company. It’s 1957 and he is back in Germany and again is being roped into doing jobs he doesn’t really want. Working for one of Germany’s largest insurance companies in Munich, he uses his skills as a detective to chase down false claims. This takes him to Greece, where a German national has made an insurance claim after his boat caught fire and sank off of Thessaloniki. In a country where the locals have yet to forgive the Germans for World War II, Gunther must determine whether this fire has a link to the War. When the claimant turns up dead, with both of his eyes shot out from close range, the Greek police see an opportunity to get rid of two Germans. Gunther must solve the crime or go down for it himself. Read our review here.
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Metropolis – 2019

The Weimar Republic period following World War I is a fascinating one and has parallels with today’s political scene – with the rise of extreme groups on both right and left, and a bit of a collapse in the middle. Babylon Berlin explored the period and now we have Philip Kerr’s take, through the eyes of a young vice detective called Bernie Gunther. Moved to the murder investigation squad his task is to look into the Silesian Station murders in 1928. Someone is killing prostitutes in a fractious area of the city. Then, the killings spread to the crippled WWI veterans who now beg here and there on the streets. With attitudes to prostitutes and beggars what they are, and right-wing agitators rising in Berlin, who will speak for the broken and beaten victims of this new killer? Gunther, that’s who. Read our full review here on Crime Fiction Lover.
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We’ve written a series of guide articles covering several Nordic noir writers, John Connolly and more.


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