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Literature / Bernie Gunther

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The "Bernie Gunther" series is a series of fourteen Historical Fiction detective novels written by Philip Kerr.

The novels follow Bernard "Bernie" Gunther, a Berlin detective. Gunther, a veteran of the First World War, joins the police force soon after. An anti-Nazi, he leaves the police after the Nazi Party takes over in 1933. He works as a private detective for a while but events suck him back into the "Kripo" (the German criminal police) and eventually the SS. He struggles to maintain his sense of morality and ethics in the face of overwhelming Nazi evil and depravity. After the war, he is haunted by his own past, while at the same time trying to avoid punishment as a war criminal.


The series as a whole follows Bernie Gunther from 1928 to 1957. The first three novels—March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiem—were published 1989-1991 and were later grouped together as the "Berlin Noir" trilogy. After a 15-year hiatus in which Kerr wrote several other novels, he came back to the Bernie Gunther series and wrote eleven more books. The last, Metropolis, was published a year after Kerr's death from cancer in 2018.


The Bernie Gunther series

Tropes in the series:

  • Anachronic Order: Averted through the first five novels, which take Bernie from 1936 to 1950. Then the first part of If the Dead Rise Not takes Bernie back to 1934 before the second part picks up the chronology of the series in 1954. Field Grey really goes to town with this trope, with scenes in 1954 along with flashbacks to 1931, 1940, 1941, 1945, and 1946 (this being the first time he recounts what he did during World War II). Then the series gets more anachronic with Prague Fatale which is set in 1941-42. This style is continued to the end, with the last novel, Metropolis, going all the way back to 1928 and the beginning of the Bernie Gunther story.
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  • Buxom Is Better: Bernie certainly thinks so. Throughout the series, his sarcastic cynicism is oddly juxtaposed with an open appreciation of women with large breasts. Time and again he finds himself complimenting the cleavage of one or more Love Interests. In Prague Fatale he outright states that he likes boobs, but doesn't understand why he likes them so much.
  • City Noir: Several of the books are set in Berlin, which is portrayed as a dark, seamy, crime-ridden place. The rampant criminality of Nazi Germany makes this even worse.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: The Nazis frequently resort to it. In A German Requiem a woman is tortured via a corkscrew screwed into her knee. In Prague Fatale Heydrich uses water boarding to make a spy confess. Bernie himself is tortured in Field Grey.
  • Femme Fatale: Many — not all, but many — of the Once an Episode lovers that Bernie encounters over the course of the series are spies/agents using their sexuality to manipulate him.
  • Final Solution: Bernie is acutely aware of The Holocaust, having seen it happening with his own eyes when posted to the Eastern Front in 1941. He spends most of the novels set after 1941 on wrestling with his own guilty conscience. One of the flashbacks in Field Grey is his recollection of his role in an execution of around 30 captured Soviet NKVD personnel, following which his questioning of orders to murder as many Jews as possible brings him to the attention of senior SS officers.
  • Hardboiled Detective: Bernie is a cynical, hardbitten snark knight, but he has his own dignity and code, one which grows increasingly hard to follow in Nazi Germany. Philip Kerr once said in an interview that he imagined the Gunther series as what Raymond Chandler might have written if he'd emigrated to Germany instead of the United States.
  • Historical Domain Character: Many, as Bernie interacts with a lot of Real Life people. Reinhard Heydrich pops up in several novels, usually giving a reluctant Bernie one task or another. Joseph Goebbels orders Bernie to investigate the murders in the Katyn forest (A Man Without Breath). Police chief Arthur Nebe is his boss in Nazi Germany. After the war, Bernie runs afoul of East German spy chief Erich Mielke.
  • Historical Fiction: The Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, and post-war West Germany and the Cold War, as seen through the eyes of one weary detective.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Bernie hates the evil and depravity of the Nazis, and hates himself for not more actively resisting it. He starts out cynical and only grows more so over the course of the series.
  • The Nicknamer: Senior Nazis are often referred to by nickname — Goring is "Fat Hermann", Goebbels is "the Mahatma Propagandi", etc.
  • Police State: Nazi Germany. A cynical cop in The Pale Criminal wonders why Bernie is acting so high and mighty about corruption when people are being tortured and beaten to death in the building as they speak. Characters throughout are careful about what they say, with the knowledge that they could be informed on and sent to a concentration camp.
  • Private Eye Monologue: All the novels are told with the standard cynical first-person narration. Sometimes Bernie actually is a private detective, but at other points he's working for the Kripo or, much worse, the SS.
  • Sarcasm Mode: Bernie's default setting.
  • Series Continuity Error: In March Violets and The Other Side of Silence Bernie says he fought on the Turkish front in World War I. In other novels he speaks of fighting against the French on the Western Front.
  • Thieves' Cant: Lots and lots of this, although many of the people using the slang are cops. A lighter is a gun, nails are cigarettes, a bull is a cop, bells are diamonds, a sniffer is a private detective like Bernie.
  • Translation Convention: Adolf Hitler is referred to throughout as "the Leader", rather than by the German equivalent Fuhrer.