Who drove Kerr? Late author was fascinated with Nazis
And how do romance novels fare in the era of #metoo?
The news of 62-year-old Scottish author Philip Kerr’s death on Friday from cancer has come as a devastating blow to the millions of fans of his fictional German detective, Bernie Gunther. In its obituary, The Guardian noted that Berlin held a great fascination for Kerr as “a place where the impact of evil upon essentially decent people was felt especially keenly”.The morally ambiguous Gunther first appeared in 1989 in Kerr’s critically acclaimed March Violets, which was set in the city in 1936 after the Nazis’ rise to power, the first of his “Berlin Noir trilogy”. A classic, Chandleresque private eye, the cynical hard-boiled ex-cop Gunther earned his living tracking down missing persons — mainly Jews — before being hired by a wealthy industrialist to find the murderer of his daughter and son-in-law.
Gunther is soon catapulted into a major scandal involving Hitler’s two main henchmen, Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler. The case takes Gunther from morgues overflowing with Nazi victims to Dachau via the Olympic Games where the ideal of Aryan superiority is trumped by Jesse Owens.March Violets was followed by 1990’s The Pale Criminal and 1991’s A German Requiem, taking Gunther to the end of World War 2 and its aftermath in Vienna. Each of the books, Kerr later said, was aimed at painting Gunther into a corner “so that he can’t cross the floor without getting paint on his shoes”.
Fifteen years passed before the next Gunther novel, The One From the Other, appeared in 2006. In the decade that followed, a further nine appeared, with the last, the 13th in the series, Greeks Bearing Gifts (Quercus), out next week.It is set in 1957, and the compromised Gunther is now living in Munich where he works at a hospital morgue under an assumed name. With the help of an old pre-war colleague he lands a job as a claims investigator for an insurance company, and is directed to look into the loss of a ship in Greek waters belonging to a celebrated German documentary filmmaker, Siegfried Witzel. Gunther’s bosses suspect fraud, but then Witzel is murdered and it looks like Gunther will take the rap.
Soon enough, as is invariably the case in Kerr’s impeccably researched novels, Gunther is plunged into darker waters, this time a complex plot to salvage gold stolen in the war from the Jews of Salonika. Expect pacy action, mordant humour and a rich cast of well-defined villains.THE ISSUE
Imagine: you’re a couple of chapters into your new romance novel. As far as the plot goes, this is familiar, well-worn territory, but no matter. Things are about to get ... interesting. He is the handsome, sometimes cruel manager, square-jawed with a fierce scowl. He looms over the beautiful new secretary, about to reprimand her for misfiling the Fotheringham report when suddenly he notices the tiny butterfly-shaped birthmark on the back of her neck ...
Then the head of Human Resources strides up to remind both of them about the company’s sexual harassment policies.
Welcome, then, to the threatened romance novel in the age of Donald Trump and the #MeToo movement. Writers of bodice-rippers are now reportedly finding that one of the genre’s most familiar and trusted tropes — alpha male pursues and then bags a reluctant heroine — somewhat “problematic” in the post-Weinstein era.
Concerns first emerged at last month’s Rare18 in London. Rare (Romance Authors and Readers Events) is an annual convention in which fans turn up in their thousands with wheelie suitcases to cart off as many novels as they can and queue for hours to get them signed by authors.According to the Guardian, novelist Sarah MacLean was 275 pages into The Day of the Duchess (Avon), the third in her “Scandal and Scoundrel” series, following an ostensibly reliable plot: titled duke, beautiful estranged wife embroiled in scandal, seemingly insurmountable odds to surmount before mounting one another.
Then Trump was elected — and MacLean couldn’t bear her male protagonist any longer.
She told the newspaper, “I woke up on November 9  and I was like: ‘I can’t write another one of these rich entitled impenetrable alphas. I just can’t.' It was the story of that horrible impenetrable alpha evolving through love to be a fully formed human, which is a thing we do a lot in romance. And I just couldn’t see a way in my head that he would ultimately not be a Trump voter.”
Romance is a huge money-spinner, yet it’s fair to say it’s not the most respected of genres. Hillary Clinton did once describe the books as being about “women being grabbed and thrown on a horse and ridden off into the distance”, which, the Guardian noted, wasn’t an entirely incorrect view, considering the popularity of novels about handsome highwaymen.
Commenting on the shift, publishing director Anne Boatman said that more career women have begun appearing in manuscripts. “The fashions of romance have always changed over the years — they change with the fantasies that women and men want to have,” she added. “And maybe in the current climate, women are having different fantasies.”Meanwhile, author Lauren Layne told The Times of London that the #MeToo movement was firmly in her mind when she wrote her new office romance, I Think I Love You (Headline Eternal), out in July. Its plot originally involved a woman falling in love with her boss. But then came a substantial rewrite.
“What felt OK in 2016 was suddenly extremely thorny in 2018,” she told the newspaper. “What has always been a relatively common romance-novel trope was now uncomfortable, or at least very delicate.”
Not wanting to spoil things, but Layne’s heroine, Brit Robbins, is now deeply conflicted about her relationship with company vice-president Hunter Cross, but all comes to a satisfactory conclusion when both find new jobs at separate companies — and are thus liberated from the ethical minefield of employer-employee affairs.
Right now, though, it would appear that vice-presidents are old hat. According to MacLean, working-class or blue-collar heroes are the new hot ticket. As she puts it: “Mechanics are really big.”
Books on the 20th century’s most notorious dictators would fill scores of libraries. Countless authors have dedicated decades to document their atrocities, the mass murders, the famines they created, the wars they waged, the wealth they plundered. And yet one area of their political infamy remains shockingly neglected: the tyrants’ crimes against the written word.
Until now, and for this we must thank Daniel Kalder, who has, on our behalf, tirelessly ploughed through the most god-awful books of all time to bring us his witty and darkly entertaining Dictator Literature: A History of Despots Through Their Writing (One World).Reviewing the book on Saturday, The Times of London said Kalder deserved a medal for his efforts: “He spent years trudging through the writing of tyrants, from Lenin to Putin by way of Salazar and Saddam. This venture, he complains, was ‘excruciatingly painful’ because dictators ‘almost always produce mind-numbing drivel’.”
Paradoxically, Dictator Literature is terrific on tedium — and bitterly funny at times. “Illiteracy,” Kalder writes, “is not necessarily a bad thing, as the example of Stalin demonstrates. Teaching him to read was clearly an error of world-historical proportions.” He put off reading Mao’s On Practice until he was suffering from a violent fever hoping that “a hallucinatory fog would somehow make the experience more tolerable”. It did not.
When it came to unadulterated gibberish, though, no one it seemed was worse than our old friend, Colonel Gaddafi, who, in his pompous scribblings, had this to say about the difference between the sexes: “Women are females and men are males. According to gynaecologists, women menstruate every month or so, while men, being male, do not menstruate … As man does not get pregnant, he is not liable to the conditions to which women, being female, suffer.”
Profound? Yes. Profoundly stupid. Like all despots.
Dictator Literature has been described by its publisher as “a journey to the end of the literary night” and a cautionary tale about damagogues. “Almost every dictator,” the bumf goes, “has been a prolific author, and their books occupied the space in their societies that is usually allotted to sacred texts. To understand history’s demons and the millions of souls they delighted in torturing, we must engage with their books.”
THE BOTTOM LINE“When debating the title for this book, I worried that it would be viewed as exclusionary to those who identify with the struggles portrayed but who do not have a uterus. I am firm in my conviction that endometriosis is not a uterine-dependent disease — as firm as I am in my conviction that not all women have a uterus and not all those who have a uterus identify as a woman …” — Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain by Abby Norman (Nation Books)