Berlin Noir: The Brilliant Novels of Philip Kerr

Nancy Bilyeau
9 min readSep 27, 2021

The Bernie Gunther series sets a high mark for historical thrillers

Philip Kerr

A group of watercolor landscapes went on sale at a German auction house, supposedly the work of a young and impoverished Adolf Hitler while he was struggling as an artist in Vienna. The paintings, along with a Fuhrer armchair decorated with a swastika, failed to find a single buyer, but not necessarily because people were repulsed.

There is, distressingly, a thriving market in Hitler — and Nazi — memorabilia. This particular lot, though, were widely dismissed as fakes. Artwork authenticity aside, the existence of the auction caused considerable embarrassment.

At first glance, it might seem as if a series of mystery novels featuring a German detective during the Nazis’ rise to power, World War II, and Europe’s postwar recovery might very well land in the category of tasteless as well.

That would be a serious mistake.

The fourteen Bernie Gunther novels written by Philip Kerr offer not only first-rate mystery plotting, atmospheric prose, and witty dialogue but also philosophical insights into the nature of ambition, loyalty, and identity.

Kerr was born in Edinburgh on Feb. 22, 1956. He gained a master’s degree in law and philosophy from the University of Birmingham, worked as an advertising copywriter for Saatchi and Saatchi, but, he has said, began his writing career with a tale of pornography penned at the age of 12.

Every one of those parts of Kerr’s life is gainfully employed in the Bernie Gunther books. When an author begins a series, those first interviews on what drew the writer to this particular protagonist and setting can stick to him like industrial-strength adhesive. In the case of the Bernhard Gunther books, Kerr’s explanation was Chandleresque, literally.

“His idea for Bernie came the moment he found himself wondering what Raymond Chandler would have come up with if instead of leaving London for Los Angeles, he’d gone east, to Berlin,” was how The Telegraph put it in a Kerr profile.

March Violets, published in 1989, launched the character of Bernhard Gunther, a World War I veteran and Berlin cop turned private investigator, drinking too much at his secretary’s…

Nancy Bilyeau

Passionate about history, pop culture, the perfect bagel. Author of 5 historical novels. Latest book: ‘The Orchid Hour'