Prewar Berlin Inspires Crime Novelist's Dark Side Set in the 1920s and 1930s — mostly in the section of the city that later became East Berlin — Philip Kerr's crime novels feature a climate of extreme violence and debauchery, full of rogues, cheats and liars.
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Prewar Berlin Inspires Crime Novelist's Dark Side

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Prewar Berlin Inspires Crime Novelist's Dark Side

Prewar Berlin Inspires Crime Novelist's Dark Side

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Fascists, communists, hookers, cowards and a rumpled German homicide detective who's just trying to do his job. Welcome to novelist Phillip Kerr's Berlin during the Weimar Republic. Today our summer series Crime In The City takes us to the German capital where Kerr's police detective tries solve routine murders while all around him the ascendant Nazis plot and start to carry out much bigger crimes.

NPR's Eric Westervelt has our story.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Today, East Berlin's Alexanderplatz is a sprawling mass of concrete chain stores and billboards advertising toothpaste and cars. A statue of Karl Marx casts a disappointed eye over what remains of his legacy. Novelist Phillip Kerr is standing outside a Berlin Alexanderplatz police station. It's here that Kerr's detective, Bernie Gunther, works his homicide beat in the 1920s and early '30s. It's hard to believe this drab expanse of East German architecture was once the physical and emotional heart of the city.

Mr. PHILIP KERR (Novelist): It was pure Berlin. It was vulgar, it as noisy, it was dirty. It was full of rogues and cheats and thieves and full of policemen, many of whom were rogues and thieves and cheats themselves.

WESTERVELT: Kerr's detective is witness to the rise and fall of both the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. Gunther's city is a mix of extremes. People are flocking to fascism or communism. Berlin is trying to emerge from the shell-shock of defeat in the First World War, hyperinflation, and later the stock market crash of 1929. It's also a city whiplashed by rapid modernization, where the attempted orderliness of Weimar republicanism runs smack into the excesses and debauchery of Berlin's dirty nightlife.

Mr. KERR: I mean Berlin was in the '20s and the very early '30s, was the most liberal city in Europe. I mean anything went.

WESTERVELT: Sex, drugs, cabaret.

Mr. KERR: Sex, drug, cabaret, open nudity, you name it.

WESTERVELT: That is, until the Nazis cracked down.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

WESTERVELT: Phillip Kerr and I take to what's left of Gunther's streets on foot. We head to Linienstrasse, which today is part of the gentrified, Mercedes-lined gallery district where people in carefully ruffled attire sip cappuccinos and try to look artfully bored. The white-walled sterility of the streets betrays nothing of what the area once was. We're standing at an address that used to be home to the Blue Stocking, a notorious Weimar haunt where some of Berlin's estimated 100,000 hookers would accommodate just about any kink, perversion or taste. The Blue Stocking was known for hookers called gravel.

Mr. KERR: Gravel were prostitutes who were disabled. So they either had one leg, or they were disfigured in some way, or one-armed, or possibly no legs at all. Was actually quite a big market. The reason being of course so many men was disabled after the First World War that many of them really only felt confident when they were with people who were similarly disabled.

WESTERVELT: Today the infamous club address houses a physiotherapy studio. In Kerr's novels, detective Gunther sees the city he loves for its edgy openness slowly becoming oppressive and taken over by jack-booted thugs. Bernie believes in democracy in the Weimar Republic, yet he's not passionately political. He just wants to do his job. He's a professional. But when dead communists and Jews begin turning up on Berlin's streets, it becomes impossible for Gunther to do his job because it's the fascist Brown Shirts who are doing most of the throat-cutting and strangling.

Kerr reads from March violence in his Berlin noir trilogy where Gunther complains of the pressure on police to enforce the new order.

Mr. KERR: (Unintelligible) is like speaking disrespectfully of the Fuhrer, displaying a sold out sign in your butcher shop window, not giving the Hitler salute, and homosexuality. That was Berlin under the National Socialist government. Sinister cellars, locked rooms, and a whole attic full of poltergeists on the loose, throwing books, banging doors, breaking glass, shouting in the night and generally scaring the owners so badly that there were times when they were ready to sell up and get out. But most of the time they just stopped up their ears, covered their blackened eyes, and tried to pretend there was nothing wrong. Cowed with fear, they spoke very little, ignoring the carpet moving underneath their feet and their laughter was the thin, nervous kind that always accompanies the boss's little joke.

WESTERVELT: Kerr's detective is infused with a bit of moral ambiguity. He's opposed to the Nazis, but he doesn't always stand up to them. He is, as Kerr puts it, a survivalist, but his moral code sometimes gets in the way. Next to what's left of the Berlin Wall at an outdoor exhibit called The Topography of Terror, we eye the red-brick outlines of basement cells. It's all that's left of the Berlin Gestapo's main headquarters and prison. It's where anyone the Nazis hated - communists, Jews, dissidents, gays, social democrats, gypsies -were interrogated, tortured, and many killed.

Mr. KERR: Really what terrifies me most is that nearly all of it was done by lawyers. These people were intelligent, urbane, articulate. They knew perfectly well what they were doing.

WESTERVELT: And if you survived Gestapo interrogation and weren't shipped off to a concentration camp, they often took you into the garden here and shot you, usually at 11 a.m. sharp - German punctuality. It was said that people who lived in the neighborhood could set their clocks by the sound of the gunfire. Kerr's detective works his beat with this kind of backdrop of terror always hovering over him.

Mr. KERR: It is certainly, for my money, the most important historical event of the millennium - certainly since the Reformation anyway. It's no time at all since it happened. It's only 50, 60, 70 years, which is nothing in historical terms, nothing at all.

WESTERVELT: Kerr was trained as a lawyer but quickly gave up the profession his parents wanted him to pursue and followed his passion for writing. He's published more than 20 novels so far. He says his work has stayed vibrant by staying away from the cookie-cutter formulas that often tarnish the mystery and crime genres.

Mr. KERR: It's terribly parochial. It's like small-scale stuff, it's like and what do you think? How many murders can you get in Oxford, for Pete's sake, you know? And the fascination for me about writing about crime in Berlin was the idea that there was this much bigger crime taking place in the background, a fantastically epochal moment in history which is just going on. So, yeah, you've got this sense of investigating criminals, and yeah, the fun part for the writer is to bring in the really bad guys and that just sort of makes the whole thing sort of have a greater resonance, really, the echo is much louder.

WESTERVELT: Bernie Gunther, Kerr's sassy, occasionally morally ambivalent detective appears in his sixth Berlin detective novel out this fall. It's called "If The Dead Rise Not."

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, with Philip Kerr in Berlin.

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