Introducing Bernie Gunther
by Philip Kerr
This morning, I opened the notebook in which I wrote by hand my first published novel, March Violets, and realised not only that it had been thirty years since I began to write about my ‘good’ German detective, Bernie Gunther, but that the initial draft had been written in the third person – something I had completely forgotten.
The manuscript is a bit of a curiosity to me now. There’s blood on one of the pages and according to a note I made near the back, I had £287 in the building society, and £420 in the bank. At the time I was a lowly advertising copywriter for Saatchi & Saatchi and, after an easy day writing copy, I would return home to Putney and begin work on what I hoped might one day become my real job.
Little did I think that the character would appear in almost a dozen novels – so far – and that these would be translated into over forty languages. If you’d told me then I wouldn’t have believed you. In a way I still can’t believe it. Thirty years ago seems like yesterday.
The ‘inspiration’ for the character – if that’s the right word – came out of a love for noir detective fiction and my own further education. For some reason I can’t quite remember, I’d not long finished writing a postgraduate thesis for a Ph.D that turned into an LL.M in German law and philosophy, and I had become fascinated with the kultureller Hintergrund of Nazism. I still am.
At that particular stage I wasn’t sure I wanted to write a detective story. But I did know that I wanted to write about Berlin. After all, Isherwood and le Carré had both proved, brilliantly, that you didn’t have to be a Berliner – or even a German – to write about Berlin. Indeed, to some extent, it’s the English who have helped to define a hundred years of how we perceive the city.
Back in the mid-eighties, very little information had been published on what life was life was like for an ordinary German during the thirties, and to some extent my life became like a detective’s: there were many long hours searching for tiny clues about German life under the Nazis in the London Library, and in Berlin itself. It was my own painstaking library research and pounding the Berlin streets – old Baedeker in hand – which persuaded me that since I was behaving rather like a detective, I might as well write about one. Besides, wasn’t a policeman likely to face rather more difficult moral dilemmas than those a insurance salesman or a dentist might encounter? Thus, Bernie Gunther was born.
It’s been quite a journey, one way or another. Bernie has taken me as far afield as Japan and Cuba, Russia and the United States; he is without doubt my most popular creation and seems much loved. Which is odd to me since I’ve never considered myself to be a very lovable fellow at all. Far from it. Just ask poor Bernie. But for me he might have been happily married with children; instead of which – well, you’ll have to read the next one to find out what’s what.
A huge thank you to Philip Kerr for sharing the inspiration for Bernie Gunther with us. March Violets is Waterstones Thriller of the Month this November. Grab your copy now!