Bookmarks: Nazis, spies, porky pies and mushy peas
A fortnightly look at books, writers and reviews
Fans of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels are in for a valedictory treat. The cynical Berlin detective returns for one last adventure in Metropolis (Quercus), the 14th in a wonderful series about a cop whose moral centre is distinctly at odds with those of his contemporaries in Nazi Germany. Released later this week, it is Kerr’s final work – the manuscript was delivered just prior to his death from cancer last year – and, to close the book on Bernie, Kerr has chosen to start at the beginning with a novel that examines his antihero’s roots as a young policeman in the Weimar Republic and his first cases with Berlin’s Murder Commission.
It’s 1928 and Bernie is on the trail of two murderers, one who scalps his prostitute victims, and the other a serial killer who is targeting disabled World War 1 veterans. To apprehend the latter, Bernie has been persuaded to go undercover as a homeless veteran. An unexpected romance with the makeup artist who must help him pass off as a beggar introduces him to Berlin’s vibrant cultural life and its hedonistic underground. Soon he’s mixing with the likes of singer and actress Lotte Lenya, wife of Mack the Knife composer Kurt Weill; the artist George Grosz, who sketches murder victims that are on public display at the police morgue; and scriptwriter Thea von Harbou, whose husband Fritz Lang directed the 1927 expressionist science-fiction classic, Metropolis. But it is also a time when Nazism is on the rise, and Berlin seethes with violence, political upheaval and casual antisemitism. Those who have followed Bernie since his first appearance, as a 38-year-old private investigator, in 1989’s March Violets, set in Berlin 1936, will know that his Chandleresque career has been chequered, and that his encounters with Nazi criminals continued well after World War 2 and took him to countries as far afield as Argentina and Cuba. March Violets was initially intended to be the first of three novels. It was followed by 1990’s The Pale Criminal and 1991’s A German Requiem, and subsequently published in a single volume, The Berlin Noir Trilogy. It was only in 2006 that The One From the Other, the fourth Gunter novel, appeared. As an “origin” story, Metropolis offers newcomers an ideal introduction to Gunther, as well as offering longstanding fans the ideal opportunity to start the series again.
The decadence of the Weimar Republic and the era that followed has thrown up other fictional gumshoes, perhaps the most notable being detective inspector Gereon Rath in Volker Kutscher’s outstanding German novels. Four of these have been translated into English: Babylon Berlin, The Silent Death, The Fatherland File and Goldstein (all Sandstone Press). A fifth Rath novel, Lunapark, has yet to appear in English.
Elsewhere, and further to the war, Luke McCallin’s Gregor Reinhardt novels – The Man From Berlin, The Pale House and The Ashes of Berlin (all No Exit Press) – appear to also follow doggedly in Bernie Gunther’s footsteps: Reinhardt is a former Berlin detective hounded out of the force by Nazis and who then finds himself working as a reluctant intelligence officer in an army he despises as Hitler launches himself at Europe. Like Bernie, Reinhardt has refused to join the Nazi party, but his investigating skills are highly prized and he soon lands up in some very dangerous situations. The novels have been praised for their historical accuracy and complex plots.
There’s more of the same with Cay Rademacher’s harrowing Inspector Frank Stave crime trilogy, The Murderer in Ruins, The Wolf Children and The Forger (all Arcadia Books). The series is set in the bleak, post-war ruins of late 1940s Hamburg, a city carpet-bombed to rubble, where Stave, a German career policeman, attempts to tackle some truly appalling crimes as his countrymen attempt to rebuild a country from the ashes of its Nazi past. CLOAKS AND DAGGERS, ETC
Archives are being released, seals are prised open on hitherto top secret files, and it’s a purple patch for spy biographies and histories about the intelligence-gathering communities of the not-too distant past. Ben Macintyre is an undisputed master at this sort of thing, and his recent books, 2015’s A Spy Among Friends: Philby and the Great Betrayal and last year’s The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War (released in paperback by Penguin next month), are riveting reads.
But now comes the extraordinary An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent (Bloomsbury) by Owen Matthews, an account of a man who apparently altered the course of World War 2 but was nevertheless an “idealistic communist and a cynical liar”, a “pedant, a drunk, and a womaniser … addicted to risk, a braggart, often wildly indisciplined”. For all his many flaws, the most striking thing about Sorge is that it took so long before anyone realised that he was a Russian spy. He certainly signalled his sympathies to the world at large. Born in 1895, the son of a German engineer, he fell in with the communists at an early age and was writing Marxist polemics in the 1920s and then joined the Comintern. In 1929, the Red Army sent him to Shanghai, where he found his vocation. A practiced seducer, he courted Nazi diplomats there, bedded many of their wives, and otherwise spent his days drinking and whoring. He was sent to Tokyo in 1933 to determine Japan’s intentions in Manchuria, and there assembled a network of informers and was able to inform Moscow of both the Nazis’ intentions to invade Russia and Japan’s intentions to attack Allied positions in Asia. The great irony is that Sorge was ordered to return to Moscow in 1936. He refused to go, well aware that he would probably have been executed in Stalin’s purges had he done so. The insubordination and the information that followed may have been to Stalin’s advantage, but the tyrant would have his revenge in the end. Sorge was arrested by the Japanese in 1941 after they stumbled across one of his informants. Sorge optimistically assumed that Moscow would somehow intervene to save him, but Stalin did nothing, and he was hanged shortly before the Japanese launched their attack on Pearl Harbour. It was only in 1964 that Nikita Kruschev admitted that Sorge had been a Soviet agent, and the KGB turned him into a cult hero.
FULL ENGLISH BREXIT
On to the unpalatable issue of national populism, and the curious confection that is Pie Fidelity: In Defence of British Food by Pete Brown (Particular Books), a work that, for all the nobility of its intentions, has been mercilessly gutted by (British) critics who’ve made a meal of its author’s claim that the UK “does pies better than anyone else in the world”. “Does it?” asks Jonathan Meades in the Guardian. “Empanada, samosa, tourte, hachis parmentier, sartu, coulibiac, pastilla … Such gastronomic nationalism is blind.” Meades is particularly vicious about Brown’s Yorkshire roots, describing him as a “professional northerner” and his book as an “errant, discursive, unedited exercise in bloke-prose and lad-bant”.
“He has scaled a class ladder,” Meades writes, “that might have been transported intact from the glum fictions of John Wain or John Braine 60 years ago. So might much of the food he garrulously celebrates: pork pie with mushy peas, fish and chips, cream tea, full English breakfast and other bad-diet souvenirs of his childhood – food that these days is positively exotic in Stoke Newington [the London borough where Brown now lives].”
William Skidelsky, in The Observer, was a little kinder, but questions Brown’s assertion that the merits of British cuisine are unsung. Fish and chips and the full English “seem to be doing pretty nicely”, he writes, but Brown could have championed the forgotten stews and savoury puddings that were once a staple of England’s rural population. “And he overstates his case at times – suggesting, for example, that pies and the like rival the best offerings of any country. If that’s true, then why has British food made so little impression (other than as a subject of ridicule) on the rest of the world? It’s not as if our dealings with other nations haven’t been extensive. Brown never really confronts this question, perhaps because the answer that his own arguments would compel him to (that foreigners are narrow-minded and judgmental) wouldn’t sit comfortably with the kimchi-eater inside him.”
Here’s a desperate addition to the canon of corporate babble, one with an eye squarely on the cash register: Win Or Die: Lessons for Life From Game of Thrones (Bonnier) by Bruce Craven. The suspicion that the book may be satirical is strong, but no, Craven is a programme director at the Columbia Business School who specialises in teaching leadership through fiction who believes George RR Martin’s fantasy books and the HBO TV series they spawned offer a rich material for management types. Especially the psychopaths. As Cersei Lannister will tell you, “When you play the game of thrones you win or die. There is no middle ground.” And we’ve all worked for unhinged cows like Lannister, right? In that sense, Win or Die may appeal to those who revel in the cut and thrust of treachery in mahogany row. But for the rest of us? Some readers may have noticed that GoT (spoiler alert!) is wall-to-wall rape and murder. The deaths in Westeros are particularly horrible. People get fed their cooked kids at banquets, weddings are bloodbaths, they’re put to the sword and thrown off cliffs and executed with such abandon it’s not surprising some characters are resurrected as zombies: now they can be slaughtered all over again.
Most business manuals will ponderously declare that this is not how a company should be run. And guess what? So does Craven’s. Cersei Lannister is wrong, he argues. There is a middle ground. And of course there is, but it’s very shaky: flip-flopping between the incestuous blood feuds of Martin’s imagination and the strategies behind the success stories of Wall Street doesn’t necessarily mean there is a link between the two. Writing in The Times of London, Hugo Rifkind noted, “If the target market for this book exists, I have never met anybody in it. For there are two geek cultures at work here, not one. That of Westeros and that of self-help motivational business-speak. And with this book, one ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them. No, wait, sorry, that’s something else.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
“Something is happening in African literature: The women are coming. For decades now, a river of original and important writing by female authors has been flowing out of that continent – books by writers such as Marlene van Niekerk, of whose second novel Liesl Schillinger wrote in these pages, ‘books like Agaat … are the reason people read novels’; Tsitsi Dangarembga (Nervous Conditions); and, of course, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Now that river has burst its banks and become a flood. Namwali Serpell’s extraordinary, ambitious, evocative first novel, The Old Drift, contributes powerfully to this new wave.” – Salman Rushdie, reviewing Zambian-born Serpell’s The Old Drift (Hogarth) for the New York Times.