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by Philip Kerr
G.P. Putnam's Sons, April 2019
385 pages
ISBN: 0735218897

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When Philip Kerr learned that he might have time enough left for just one further chapter in the life story of Bernie Gunther, he did not make the obvious choice of taking Bernie into retirement, old age, or possible death. Instead he returned to Berlin, 1928, when Bernie was still reasonably young, still a policeman, and Hitler merely a dark possibility, not the agent of inescapable disaster he would shortly become. The choice was a inspired one, not least because it encourages readers new to the life and times of Bernie Gunther to begin with his first professional appearance and go on to follow the previous thirteen volumes of this extraordinary series, ending withGREEKS BEARING GIFTS, which then can serve not so much as a full stop as permanent pause.

But for readers like myself, who have been with Bernie from MARCH VIOLETS, reading METROPOLIS has to be a bittersweet experience. Kerr takes us back to the declining years of the Weimar Republic, ten years after the end of the Great War, a war that was still a festering sore on the body politic. Bernie is himself a veteran of the trenches, one who escaped permanent physical disability, but who was nevertheless profoundly affected by what he had seen and done, as were all who served at the front. Now he is policeman in Berlin, newly promoted to a permanent place on the Murder Squad and in the "murder wagon," the mobile unit sent to investigate crime scenes. His boss is Bernard Weiss, ex-army, holder of the Iron Cross, reformer of the Berlin police service, and Jewish, which means that his career will be short-lived, at least in Germany. (The real Weiss fled to London, where he became a stationer, when Hitler came to power.)

Initially, the focus of the Murder Squad is finding a serial killer, dubbed Winnetou after a character in a Karl May western, who is killing prostitutes and partially scalping them. To that end, Bernie pays a visit to the morgue, open to sightseers, where he chats with George Grosz, the Dada artist who specialized in pitiless depictions of the worst that Berlin was capable of producing. Grosz sketches Bernie as they talk. Bernie is a bit shocked when Grosz describes his favourite subjects, but the artist reassures him that his friends Max Beckmann and Otto Dix are even worse. (The three panels of Otto Dix's triptych Metropolis introduce the three main sections of the book.)

But soon enough another set of related killings becomes the focus. Someone is dispatching disabled war veterans who have been reduced to begging on the streets for lack of work or pension. Bernie becomes convinced that Winnetou and this killer, who calls himself Dr. Gnadenschuss (Dr Coup-de-grāce) are one and the same, but cannot prove it. To test his theory he applies a technique that Weiss has recommended - that he get to know the victim - and embarks on an extremely dangerous course. He disguises himself as a wounded vet and stakes himself out like deer to tiger, hoping to attract the killer and stop him.

It doesn't work particularly well, but the ruse puts him in touch with a Berlin different from the world of sex workers, drunks, and thieves with which he is far too familiar. In order to perfect his disguise, he is put in touch with the makeup artist at the Neues Theater, where The Threepenny Opera, is in rehearsal. (He has a poor opinion of Lotte Lenya's singing.) And, because he is Bernie, he becomes involved with the makeup artist, Brigitte, in a love affair that can only end abruptly.

METROPOLIS is a least a hundred pages shorter than any of the later Gunther novels, for reasons that are both obvious and tragic. Nevertheless, although the concluding chapters wrap up the outstanding plot threads with efficiency and dispatch, there is no sense that Kerr lowered his artistic standards for a single moment to finish the book. The writing is throughout witty, stylish, and on the mark. We suspect that, had he the time, Kerr would have liked to develop some of the historic figures, like Fritz Lange and his wife Thea von Harbou (especially Thea von Harbou) at greater length, but the book itself does not suffer because he did not.

Indeed, METROPOLIS is a rare literary achievement. It not only provides a stunning portrait of a city on the brink of disaster, it brings its main character to his fullest development. The Bernie of METROPOLIS is not quite the Bernie we thought we knew. He begins, despite his war experiences and whatever else he has dealt with since, as essentially hopeful. At the very beginning, he muses on Berlin-as-Babylon and decides that the city will not suffer a similar fate:

[Babylon] was destroyed by the Chaldeans, its walls, temples, and palaces razed and the rubble thrown into the sea. Something like that was never going to happen to us. Whatever followed now, we were probably safe from a biblical destruction. It wasn't in anyone's interest - not the French, nor the British, and certainly not the Russians - to see Berlin, and by extension, Germany, become the subject of divine apocalyptic vengeance.

Bernie may be a brilliant detective, but he's a lousy prophet and by the end of the book he is forced to confront some hard truths about the prospects for total honesty in his city, his country, that is headed in a direction that could lead to an apocalyptic ending. Those who have read his further adventures will know how difficult it becomes for Bernie to retain even a fingerhold on honesty, how often he will have to compromise with principle.

As for myself, I will miss Bernie Gunther and his creator sorely. I will miss his crabbed take on so many of the disasters of the 20th century, his honesty and his dishonesty, and his sardonic wit. I never met Philip Kerr, but his premature departure has left an empty space in my imaginative world.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, March 2019

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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