Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Berlin Noir

Back in 1986 I decided it was a good idea to travel all around Europe with nothing but Let's Go Europe and a giant paperback of the Collected Novels of Thomas Hardy. Sure, thousands of miles away from home, why not read the most depressing novels in the English language? [ABE Books compiled Bleak Books: The Top Ten Most Depressing Books awhile ago. Hardy's Jude the Obscure was #3]
But Hardy was good prep for a day in grim East Berlin. We walked past Checkpoint Charlie and it felt like the Morrissey song: "Every day is like Sunday / Every day is silent and grey". Night to West Berlin's brilliant shining day of 24 hour bars and bustling main drag, the Kurf├╝rstendamm (the Ku'damm). There was a real sense of history in East Berlin though. There was less postwar reconstruction, especially close to the Wall where many of the buildings were full of bullet holes from the war. The picture above is me in East Berlin on Rosa Luxemburg Strasse, with one of the infamous 27 horsepower East German Trabant cars behind me. [Edit Nov. 17 - Globe has a slide show of new hipster car - the Trabant!]

Rosa Luxemburg was a Communist pioneer, killed during a rebellion in Berlin in 1919. Novelist Jonathan Rabb wrote a detective novel, Rosa, using her story. PW said Rabb's "re-creation of post-World War I Berlin is masterly". Rabb has a new (2009) sequel to Rosa out, Shadow and Light, set in 1927 Berlin.

The master of Berlin-set detective fiction is Philip Kerr, with his trilogy Berlin Noir (1993), originally published singly as March Violets (1989), Pale Criminal (1990) and A German Requiem (1991). The books star Bernie Gunther as a very hard-boiled detective in 1936, 1938 and 1947 Berlin (and Vienna in the 3rd one). Gunther fans were delighted when a new novel appeared in 2006, The One From the Other, followed by A Quiet Flame (2008) and soon If the Dead Rise Not (2010). Highly, highly recommended, particularly March Violets.

If you are looking for that Alan Furst-style eve-of-destruction atmosphere, David Downing has two thrillers set in 1939 Berlin, Zoo Station (2007) and its sequel, Silesian Station (2008). Both star Anglo-American journalist John Russell and concern the moral compromises war brings. Booklist called Zoo Station a "quiet but suspenseful tale of an ordinary man living in a dangerous place during a dangerous time".

Veteran espionage writer Charles McCarry was an American spy during the Cold War. Christopher's Ghosts begins in 1939 with Paul Christopher witnessing an atrocity committed by S.S. officer Franz Stutzer. 20 years later, back in Berlin during the Cold War, Stutzer emerges from the ruins looking to kill the last witness to his crime.

The best novel about the postwar/prewall period, the 1950s before the Wall's construction in 1961, is Ian McEwan's masterful, The Innocent. This is the Ian McEwan of Atonement fame. The Innocent was the first McEwan novel I read and I was blown away by it. This is a psychological thriller built around naive young telephone technician Leonard Marnham, brought to 1954 Berlin to help work on a secret tunnel under the Soviet sector, but finds himself deep in other nefarious deeds. A nice slow build to a shocking climax.

Paperbacks of Len Deighton's spy novels can be found mouldering away on many a cottage shelf as they made excellent beach reads. He set many in Berlin, including the first spy thriller to star his character, British spy Bernard Samson: Berlin Game (1983). You can follow Samson through three sets of trilogies: Game, Set and Match; Hook, Line and Sinker; Faith, Hope and Charity. Many have fallen out of print but Deighton may be due for a revival, especially with Quentin Tarentino considering filming Game, Set and Match.

Finally, a thriller set just before the fall of the Wall, in September 1989: Brandenburg Gate by Henry Porter. A riveting tale of a former East German Stasi agent forced back into service in the waning days of the DDR to save his brother on the wrong side of the Wall. Simon Winchester called it a "total triumph...one of those bedside table books so thrilling you reach for it on waking."

More Berlin? More Wall?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent book selections and recommendations. But you missed the most important East Berlin espionage novel: The Spy who Came in From the Cold by John le Carre." - Ostap

10:52 a.m.  
Blogger foodgirl said...

Thanks for this post Pete. My husband just inhaled the last Philip Kerr novel If the Dead Rise Not and is seriously depressed because he's at the end of the new Berlin Noir novels that are out. Now he can check out some of your suggestions and perhaps cheer up! Ha.

10:10 a.m.  

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