April Book Review Metropolis by Philip Kerr - Published 2019
This excellent book is a police thriller with a real difference, featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther working with the newly formed Murder Squad in a chaotic, lawless and bitterly divided city. Set in 1928, in the last fragile days of the Weimar Republic overshadowed by the growing presence and power of the Nazi party alongside fierce mobilisation by various Communist groups. Bernie is at the start of his career as a detective and learns from his senior leaders how to steer a difficult line between the various political factions, while trying to keep law and order on increasingly unruly streets.
The evidence of the brutal First World War and its impact on Germany is not only visible, with crippled and maimed former soldiers begging on the streets, but also in the psychological damage on all those who fought in the trenches of the Somme, such as Bernie himself. Equally many women are forced into open prostitution on the streets due to poverty. Meanwhile, the city is experiencing a frenetic explosion of decadent excess, daring cabarets and shows, shocking new art, experimental film and literature. The novel features many real characters such as Thea von Harbou, author of the film Metropolis, along with her Director husband Fritz Lang and artist George Grosz. One of Bernie’s fellow lodgers is an English novelist, Robert Rankin, who is having an affair with a cross-dressing cabaret dancer (does this sounds familiar?)
Bernie is invited by the Chief of Police, Bernhard Weiss, to join the new Murder Squad working with Ernst Gennat, his senior homicide detective on a series of gory murders of prostitutes. These then morph into hand-gun executions of crippled ex-servicemen. The story is full of sometimes shocking events and amoral characters with various twists and turns in the investigation. Throughout, the vivid social and political background is shown to be impacting on the crimes and the investigations. Just as interesting are the various philosophical debates between the Murder Squad detective team, as they try to plot a course between their sense of moral purpose and the realpolitik of 1920’s Berlin.
When you find an author you like it is always a delight to find they have written other books you might like to try, and there are 15 books in the Bernie Gunther series which plot his career in the Berlin police force through the Second World War and beyond. This book, Metropolis, although only just published, is set at the start of Bernie’s career as a prequel to all the other novels. Tragically, it is also Philip Kerr’s last novel as he died in 2018. He was writing this book as he struggled with cancer and maybe the bleakness of the novel reflects this to some extent. His friend and fellow crime writer Ian Rankin greatly admired Philip Kerr and writes an informative introduction to the book. You can read more about Philip Kerr on his website www.philipkerr.org