Way back in 1989, British author Philip Kerr published March Violets, a hardboiled mystery in which tough, tarnished private investigator Bernhard Gunther plunged into the depthless iniquities of Nazi Berlin in search of some small sliver of justice. This was followed up by two other moody period novels featuring Gunther – The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem, and all three books were subsequently published together as Berlin Noir, a trilogy that deeply influenced much of today’s WWII thrillers by such authors as Alan Furst, J. Robert Janes, Paul Grossman, Joseph Kanon and Jonathan Rabb. Quite few readers have mentioned Berlin Noir to me as one of their all-time favorites, and I agree.
Then something curious happened. Kerr dropped the series and over the next several years set about to write wildly imaginative thrillers about seemingly anything and everything else, including a Dexter-ish futuristic serial killer who only kills other serial killers (A Philosophical Investigation), technology run amok (The Grid, The Second Angel), shadowy assassins (The Shot), Sir Isaac Newton’s sleuthing side (Dark Matter) and alternative WWII history (Hitler’s Peace). As far reaching as these books got – my own favorite was Esau, which involved a yeti! – they were uniformly believable and captivating. Yet he became one of those writers it was very hard to put in a nutshell, and in a world of series fans, may have lost some readers because of that. (The equally brilliant Michael Gruber might not be as famous as he should be for the same cause: he does so many different kinds of thrillers so well, readers just can’t pidgeonhole him).
Then in 2006 he returned to Bernie Gunther with The One from the Other, in which our rumpled detective gives up his post-war bid for bourgeois respectability (as a hotelier just down the road from Dachau) and goes back to work tracking down a notorious commandant who has disappeared. Kerr has gone on to write four more Gunther books, and they are consistently excellent, jumping backward and forward in time with a mordantly funny dark knight – the European counterpart to Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe – grappling with the worst crimes, large and small, of the 20th century. If you don’t know Gunther yet, check him out; this may be the best 25-year-old series you’ve never read.