I credit the “emo flu.” If I hadn’t been stricken by this strange affliction going around, I wouldn’t have taken to bed with a pile of spy novels and emerged determined to convince you that Philip Kerr is the contemporary master of the morally complex thriller.
But first, a word about this flu. It was the strangest I’ve ever gotten, and I’m not alone in thinking it was weird. Indeed, I feel compelled to alert the world, or at least this city, about the extraordinarily subtle and insidious sequelae of this contagion going around.
When I call it the “emo flu,” it’s not a metaphor. I don’t know if it’s medically an influenza virus, but whatever the nature of this melancholy microbe, it’s worth a warning.
It begins with familiar-seeming mild flu-like symptoms (mild in my case, more severe in others), but then tails off into a long, etiolated fugue state in which something more than flu-like lethargy, lassitude and inanition paralyzes you. It’s not just a neutral world weariness, it’s Weltschmerz—world-historical sadness: Some mournful, emotional, deeply despairing, unremittingly sad and despondent sense of life seizes you and won’t let go for at least a week afterward.
I know two women, one in New York, one in D.C.—she was the one who first dubbed it “the emo flu”—who have had the exact same symptoms, and one of them has a friend in Spain who had the same sad, spiritual sequelae. So on the basis of this powerful anecdotal evidence, I suspect it’s an international phenomenon, the emo flu. It’s not the kind of thing people report to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, but I believe it’s an epidemiological phenomenon they should be aware of.
In fact, you could almost generate an unconventional thriller plot by imagining that the emo flu was bio-engineered by some sinister (or at least lachrymose) scientist: a Weapon of Mass Despondency. Not that there’s not enough in the world to be sad about already, right?
On the upside, it led me to abandon anything more strenuous than lying on a couch rereading Philip Kerr’s past work, his Berlin Noir trilogy (March Violets, The Pale Criminal and his best novel, the one you should start with, A German Requiem). The latter, set mainly in postwar Vienna, has an affinity with Graham Greene’s The Third Man but—dare I say it?—equals or surpasses Greene (and the Carol Reed film featuring Orson Welles), because it doesn’t shy away from the Nazi-saturated substratum of the Viennese milieu. And then I discovered—and devoured—Mr. Kerr’s new noir, The One From the Other. It crystallized my dissatisfaction with recent le Carré novels (clumsily didactic) and made me rethink my addiction to Alan Furst’s oeuvre (brilliant but a bit too thickly varnished with romantic glamour).
Cumulatively, it made me determined to do something to give Mr. Kerr’s achievement more recognition than it has. Recently, I was at a dinner attended by some foreign correspondents, diplomatic and international political-theory types, all of whom knew their Greene and le Carré, and found myself surprised that none of them had heard of Kerr. He’s not unknown: Salman Rushdie has called him “a brilliantly innovative thriller writer.”
Perhaps the problem is that he’s too innovative to fit in a neat category. What’s unique about Kerr’s novels of intrigue (he’s done a variety of other sorts of fiction) is that they bridge, fuse, the two strands of what I’d call the “operative novel”: the private-eye version and the public-spy version.
“Operative” is such a resonantly ambiguous word, isn’t it? Indeed, subtle distinctions about the connotations of “operative” are at the heart of the Plame case: When Bob Novak called Joe Wilson’s wife a C.I.A. “operative,” did that necessarily mean he was knowingly identifying a covert agent or merely using—as he’s maintained—a generic term for an employee of an intelligence agency, who might be an analyst for the spy agency but not a spy?
Operative. Why is the word so resonant? I think perhaps because it suggests the ambiguity of all our positions in life: We’re not sure who we’re really operatives for, who’s pulling the invisible strings—fate, God, the secret plans of the all-knowing conspiracy—and manipulating us without our knowledge. The great figures in the morally complex thriller genre are operatives who never really know who they’re operating on behalf of, or what the real operation is; who never know whose Big Plan they’re carrying out, regardless of what they think they’re doing.
“Operative” traces itself back to the early novels of Dashiell Hammett and his recurrent hero, the Continental Op, an operative for the Continental Detective Agency. And espionage novels—though they employ a broader international canvas, an engagement with actual history, nation-states in conflict with each other rather than criminals in conflict with the cops—nonetheless focus on the figure of the operative in the field, often uncertain on whose behalf he’s operating. A different kind of operative, in some ways, subject to more alienated, ambiguous, conflicting loyalties.
The achievement of Philip Kerr’s novels is that he takes his Chandler/Hammett-style detective, that lone figure in the (largely ahistorical) mean streets of the urban jungle, into the midst of a far more highly charged historical backdrop, a different, more profoundly mean—indeed, evil—sort of mean-street neighborhood, the crossroads of history and tragedy. Mr. Kerr has set his detective on an Inferno-like trajectory that takes us deep into the heart of darkness. He’s a private eye in Hitler’s Germany.
Mr. Kerr’s detective is one Bernhard Gunther, a former cop on the Berlin police force with a Chandleresque penchant for wisecracks and a cynicism about the Nazis that is not so much political as personal, characterological. We first meet him in the lengthening shadows of the year 1936, three years after Hitler takes power. Many of his clientele are Jewish families hoping against hope to trace the fate of “disappeared” relatives.
It’s a hideously compromised position, but it raises the difficult philosophical question of whether it’s possible to do anything honorable in a regime moving relentlessly toward ultimate evil. Gunther makes a living off anti-Semitic persecution, but he’s not happy about it. Not out of philo-Semitic sentiment, but because of his contempt for Nazi cruelty and bullying. It’s not their ideology but their collective personality that he detests. Although he’s too smart not to see the connection.
And so he’s a private eye who crosses the boundary from the traditionally ahistorical realm of small-time crime to the inner workings of historical criminality.
And what deepens—and immeasurably darkens—the two postwar novels, A German Requiem and The One From the Other, is the fact that Bernie Gunther feels responsible for the death of thousands of civilians during the war, many of them Jews. Conscripted into the SS during the invasion of Russia, he’s in charge of carrying out the infamous Commissar Order, the 1941 Hitler command which allowed his invading army to slaughter civilians under the pretext that they were Communist Party officials. After realizing that, in practice, this was a cover for the beginning of the mass murder of the Jews, Gunther applies for a transfer to frontline fighting rather than continue the murder of the innocents. Nonetheless, he has to live with the blood on his hands, on his conscience.
We are now deep into the question of just what is and what isn’t inexcusable: How does one judge the degrees of evil in an evil regime?
In Mr. Kerr’s postwar novels, no one is entirely innocent, everyone is complicit—including the Americans who facilitated the protection and escape of Nazi war criminals for short-term Cold War gains against the Soviets. What does doing favors for mass murderers make one? It’s a time when the opposition of anti-Nazi/pro-Nazi is intersecting the vector of anti-communist/pro-communist, and we are complicit with the sick specter of the pro-Nazi anti-Communist. An influenza of evil.
Illicit, watered-down penicillin is the deadly cure at the heart of The Third Man. Penicillin runs like a river throughout A German Requiem, I think because Mr. Kerr has picked up on Greene’s metaphor: The cure is as deadly as the plague. Penicillin can cure venereal disease—that’s what everyone seems to want it for in Mr. Kerr’s Vienna—but there is no moral penicillin that can restore the diseased realm of collaborators to health.
I hope you’ll all read A German Requiem; I think you’ll appreciate the sophisticated historical intelligence that Mr. Kerr brings to the morally complex thriller genre. It is not without contemporary implications—this novel of an occupation disrupted by the schemes of holdover mass murderers and the incompetence of the occupation authorities.
And once you’ve read A German Requiem, you’ll probably be unable to stop yourselves from going backwards to March Violets or forward to the new one, The One From the Other.
It’s also set in the Occupied Zones, which, by the way—no accident here—fascinated Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow. The new novel is almost an essay on the meaning of being a knowing operative when unknown forces are manipulating one.
The setting—postwar Germany and Austria—raises the stakes of the private-eye novel, where the operative is conventionally deceived by a shrewd blond seductress. Here, the familiar figure of the private eye takes us into new territory entirely, picking his way through a realm of mass murderers and mere murderers.
We are far from the eternal question of the private-eye novel: Can you trust the dame? In its place comes the question of this new hybrid operative novel: Can you trust the damned? By taking us from the localized moral distinctions of the private eye to the profoundly more difficult distinctions that history and memory afflict us with, Mr. Kerr gives us an operative who must make distinctions between degrees of evil in a landscape of graves.
The very title of the book, The One From the Other, suggests an awareness that Mr. Kerr’s great theme is the difficulty of making distinctions, separating the one thing from the other—moral distinctions.
Nobody gets off the hook in Mr. Kerr’s work. You get the emo flu from him, too. But it’s more like what Kierkegaard called “the sickness unto death,” a sense of the infectious affliction of human nature and human history. A sickness of the soul that no immune system can protect you from.