Guest Blog: Mark Pryor Remembers Philip Kerr

I met Philip Kerr thanks to that great matchmaker, the fellow who (as much as anyone I know) brings writers together, and also introduces them to readers: BookPeople’s own Scott Montgomery. It was at the store, Phil was doing a reading and a signing, and afterward Scott introduced us and invited me to join the two of them at dinner.

Immediately, Phil and I hit it off, and I was thrilled because he was, and still is, one of my favorite writers. (When Philip died this week, the personal loss was compounded by the knowledge that I will have just one more Bernie Gunther book, the one just published, left to read.) That friendship is why, I’m sure, Scott asked me to write a little about Phil to mark his passing, to honor our mutual friend.

Image result for philip kerrBut I want to start not by talking about the man, but about his Bernie Gunther books, to linger on those for a moment. Why? Because they are Phil’s legacy, wonderful gifts of brilliant story-telling and if you’ve not read them, I want to explain why you should (and if you have, you’ll be nodding along in agreement).

They are all about the man, Bernie Gunther. He’s a policeman in Berlin, and the books are set in and around the Second World War. Sounds pretty grim, right? But that was part of Phil’s genius, taking one of the darkest times in human history and infusing them with the wit, charm, and sometimes-disguised morality of his detective. Bernie himself is no angel, that’s always made clear—he drinks and smokes and chases women. He’s not afraid to pull the trigger, either, but he only does so when necessary and in the search for justice for some poor murder victim, or to save his own skin from someone infinitely more callous, someone genuinely wicked. In my opinion, and I’ve only been reading crime fiction for forty years, so what the hell do I know, Bernie Gunther is one of the most compelling characters ever in the genre.

Phil’s books are more than just adventures for Bernie, though, they are also phenomenal explorations of history. Every book will teach you something new about the period in which it is set, and each time it’s a delightful learning experience, a revelation of fascinating sub-stories, not a dry info dump or a preachy pedagogical exercise. Always filled with characters from the era that we recognize, so many bad Germans, who are complemented by colorful characters created by the devious, mischievous mind of Philip B. Kerr. And reading them you will travel to places like Germany, France, Russia, and Argentina.

Now, about Phil. He’s actually a hard man to write about, partly because I know that he’d shrink away from the accolades and public praise that have come from every corner of the literary world since his death. I can see him now, a little smirk on his face that says, “Go on, write something that I can’t pick apart as phony.”

I’ll try. The first time I saw him was that reading at BookPeople, and I call it a reading not because he read from his new book but because he literally read his talk to the audience. I thought that odd, he was so charming and funny it was hard for me to understand why he needed to read his presentation.

Afterward, we talked about the touring he has to do for each book, and he admitted that he was an introvert and didn’t always enjoy public appearances. He found them challenging sometimes, I think, for the added reason that he was almost always the smartest man in the room (his law degree was topped off with post-graduate studies in German law and philosophy) and he had an inability to suffer fools (at all, let alone gladly).

Example: at a subsequent event at BookPeople where I hosted Phil and lobbed dumb questions at him, I’d turned it over to the audience and some eagle-eyed reader asked him about mistakes in the book that we were discussing, some minor factual or temporal error. Phil was curt, and made no apology for either his tone or the mistake. His response, in effect, was, “I’m human and humans make mistakes. If you want error free books read one written by a robot. Next question.”

As a relatively new author myself, and certainly not anywhere near Phil’s level of success, I was momentarily taken aback at his raw honesty. But that’s what it was, honesty. And, for the record, he was right. I, too, have endured pointers to alleged mistakes and, even though the person challenging me was wrong (you can buy strawberries in the Pyrénées mountains in winter!), I was still polite and even mildly apologetic. But not Philip Kerr. He didn’t need to pander to an audience member asking what he thought was a silly question. He was honest enough to say what many of us might have thought, but probably wouldn’t say.

But don’t think he wasn’t kind. He was. I’ve told this story many times, and I’ll tell it again because it shows what kind of person he was. He was talking about the publisher-arranged drivers who ferry him from the airport to the hotel and to the book events. This quiet, brilliant, introvert told me that should I ever be the writer being picked up by a volunteer, I should always sit in the front passenger seat and never the back seat. If someone is giving you their time because they love your books, don’t you dare treat them like a hired taxi driver. This from the man who, I am convinced, would every time liked to have sunk into the back seat with his thoughts to enjoy some peace and quiet.

I am so sad that I won’t get more advice from him, and that there will be an end to the Bernie Gunther books. I am angry, even, that I didn’t get to say good bye and that we won’t have one more drink at the Four Seasons bar and comment inappropriately about half of the people in the room. As a prosecutor, my humor is blacker than most people’s but Phil was one person I could share it with, without shame or reticence.

Yes, I am both sad and angry, but I am also grateful. Grateful for his books that have given me so much pleasure, that have inspired me to be a better writer myself. But also for those moments of quiet amusement we shared. The sushi and beer we consumed on South Congress, the car rally we enjoyed that same night. The twinkle in his eye when I handed him an AR-15 with laser scopes at a range south of Austin. His gentle laughter when I choked down some oysters at his favorite restaurant in London. His stories of meeting Tom Hanks and drinking with Gerard Depardieu. That was the thing about Philip Kerr, he knew how to tell a story, be it over 300 pages of a book, or over a gin and tonic in the pub. It was his gift.

There was one story we wanted to share together—it was an idea for a TV show, one that excited us both for a while, based right here in Austin. Charlie Sector, it was to be called. A cop show that we both threw ideas at, and he wrote a treatment for. It didn’t get off the ground but that didn’t stop us talking about it every time we saw each other. There’s always so much left undone, isn’t there? So much left to do.  

I’ll miss you, Phil, but thanks. Thanks for everything.

 

Mark Pryor’s latest novel is Dominic.

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MysteryPeople Review: PRUSSIAN BLUE by Philip Kerr

9780399177057Philip Kerr comes to BookPeople to speak and sign his latest Bernie Gunther novel, Prussian Blue, on Saturday, April 8th at 6 PM. You can find copies of Prussian Blue on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Philip Kerr has always excelled at highlighting the small crimes within the large crime, usually through his character Bernie Gunther’s quixotic attempts to help bring justice to individuals under the governance of the Third Reich. Despite acting under the orders of a high-ranking Nazi, Gunther gets called in to work when the Nazi leadership is in need of a professional detective to solve a crime, rather than assigning blame to a convenient scapegoat. Gunther, in each of Kerr’s works, gets his kicks and preserves his own safety by pitting Nazis against one another or in later settings, playing every side of the Cold War.

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April is for Mystery Lovers: Tons of Upcoming Events!

As we all enjoy the brief Texas spring, come take shelter from the pollen counts and enjoy our full roster of mystery events coming up in April here at the store. On April 2nd, Philip Kerr started off our April events with a blast, speaking and signing his latest continuation of his Bernie Gunther series, The Other Side of SilenceIf you missed the event, signed copies of his latest, as well as many of the previous volumes in the series, are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

This past Sunday, April 10th, at 2 PM, Laurie R. King, author of the beloved Russell and Holmes series, as well as the fantastic Kate Martinelli series, joined us to speak and sign her latest installment in her Mary Russell series, The Murder of Mary Russell. While I’ve been reading the Mary Russell novels for many years, King’s newest addition to the series, delving deep into Mrs. Hudson’s backstory, might be my favorite in the series to date!

For those who missed this event, library enthusiasts will be pleased to note that in support of Austin Public Library, 5% of sales of all Laurie R. King titles sold in store on Sunday April 10th and 5 % of sales of The Murder of Mary Russell the week of April 5th (ending April 12th) will be donated to the library. Come by today or tomorrow, grab a copy of King’s latest, and support Austin Public Library. Signed copies available!

Just one day after Laurie R. King’s visit, Stuart Woods and David C. Taylor will be speaking and signing their latest novels, Family Jewels and Night Work, respectively, today, Monday, April 11th, at 7 PM. This event is a wonderful opportunity to catch up with Stuart Woods on his large oeuvre of bestselling thrillers, while getting to know David C. Taylor, an up-and-coming crime novelist who started out in the film biz.

Next up, Jessica Knoll, author of the stunning debut, Luckiest Girl Alive, comes to speak and sign this amazing novel on Saturday, April 16th, at 3 PM. Knoll has worked as senior editor at Cosmopolitan. She draws on both life and fiction for her debut, an intense look at high school trauma and its lingering effects, even for those who manage to reinvent themselves in adulthood.

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On Sunday, April 17th, Scott and Molly will reprise our panel discussion on how we compiled our MysteryPeople Top 100 Crime and Suspense Novels at the first ever Pflugerville Book Pfestival, happening Saturday the 16th and Sunday the 17th at the Pflugerville Library. The festival is sponsored by KAZI Austin, 88.7 FM, and put together by Hopeton Hay, host of Kazi Book Review with Hopeton Hay. Thanks to Hopeton and KAZI for putting this festival together and bringing the MysteryPeople Top 100 list out into world.

Then on Monday, April 18th, at 1 PM, the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club will discuss The Professionalsby Owen Laukkanen, with a call-in from the author. The Hard Word Book Club, meeting Wednesday, April 27th, at 7 PM, also has a special guest calling in to the discussion – Craig Johnson, author of the Longmire series, will call in to discuss his novel As The Crow Flies

Finally, we’ll finish out the month with a visit from Melissa Ginsburg on Saturday, April 30th at 3 PM. Ginsburg’s Houston-set debut, Sunset City, follows a barista on the hunt for her best friend’s murderer. Sunset City is our April Pick of the Month, and we’re glad to celebrate a powerful new voice in Texas crime fiction.

MysteryPeople Review: THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr joins us here at BookPeople this Saturday, April 2nd, at 4 PM, in conversation with Mark Pryor, author of the Hugo Marston series. Kerr will be speaking and signing his latest Bernie Gunther novel, The Other Side of Silence

  • Review by Molly Odintz

9780399177040Historical mystery fans, rejoice! The ex-Berlin-policeman-turned-cynical-anti-fascist-detective Bernie Gunther has returned. Philip Kerr has just released another fantastic addition to the series, The Other Side of SilenceGunther first appeared in Philip Kerr’s brilliant 1930s-set Berlin Noir trilogy, where he begins the series as a Berlin homicide detective, quits to become a private investigator, and alternates between jobs commissioned by the regime and by the victims of the regime. Later volumes in the series follow Bernie through the war, to the Russian front, to a prison camp, to France, and to all over South America. The series frequently features two timelines with linked or similar cases, to explore Bernie’s exploits in a non-linear manner.

In Kerr’s latest, Gunther, working for a hotel in mid-50s Paris, goes on a search for a new bridge partner after his previous partner dies in a lovers’ quarrel. His quest for bridge players brings him to a journalist on assignment to write a biography of Somerset Maugham, who loves bridge as much as he hates everything else. Gunther, spurred by the lethal combination of a beautiful woman and offer of money, goes to Maugham’s estate to unlock the great man’s secrets.

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MysteryPeople Q&A with Philip Kerr

 

 

-Interview by Molly Odintz

Philip Kerr’s latest Bernie Gunther novel, The Other Side of Silencewas released this past Tuesday, heralding a visit from the author to our fine store. Come by BookPeople this Saturday to meet one of the best historical mystery writers ever – I say this as a mega-fan, but everyone knows how good this series is. Kerr will be speaking and signing his latest addition to the Bernie Gunther series this upcoming Saturday, April 2nd, at 4 PM. Kerr was kind enough to answer a few questions from us before the event. 

Molly O: In your latest, you seem to take inspiration from classic espionage fiction, and le Carré especially. You’ve made use of a number of different subgenres in your Gunther novels, even using some golden-era detective novel conventions. How do you decide which subgenres to draw upon for each Gunther story? Who are some of your biggest influences, as far as style is concerned?

“I tried to make the [Somerset] Maugham in my book as much like the real one as possible. This was easier than it might have been because of course he too was a novelist, and like me he had similar preoccupations and concerns. I felt I understood him. Sympathised. We are very alike in many ways. He just happens to have been gay and rich. I am straight and not so rich. But in all other ways we are quite alike. I think I am as much of a bitch as he is. And very probably as promiscuous.”


Philip Kerr: I don’t make a conscious decision to draw on any subgenre. I don’t pay a lot of attention to any genre. I like le Carré. I think he’s a fine novelist. It just so happens he writes about spies. My biggest influences are people like Chandler, le Carré, F.Scott Fitzgerald. Each story contains its own dynamic and I try not to draw on anyone else except History itself. I don’t observe conventions so to speak. I just try and make the story as real and unpredictable as possible.

MO: I’m going to ask you a very serious question – HOW IS BERNIE GUNTHER STILL ALIVE? I know that as a series character he has to keep going, but does it become increasingly difficult to ensure his survival through the many challenges you put him through?

PK: Many people survived in fairly extraordinary circumstances. Much of his resistance occurs inside his head. He makes jokes, but these are only ever made to people who are as cynical as he is. Plus he’s a Berliner and many Berliners shared a similarly dim view of the Nazis.
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Edgar Nominations Announced!

 

mwaThe nominations for the 2016 Edgar Awards were announced last week. This seemed to be the year where great minds think alike – many of the nominees made in on to our best of 2015 lists, put together by Scott and Molly. 

We want to congratulate old friends and new favorites, including Duane Swierczynski, nominated for his novel Canary, David C. Taylor, for Night LifeMichael Robotham, for Life or DeathMegan Abbott, for her short story “The Little Men,” Philip Kerr, for The Lady From Zagreb, Lou Berney, for The Long and Faraway GoneLori Rader Day, for Little Pretty Things, David Joy, for Where All Light Tends To GoGordon McAlpine, for The Woman with the Blue Pencil, Jessica Knoll, for Luckiest Girl Alive, and Adrian McKinty, for Gun Street Girl.

Congratulations all the others who made it. Best of luck to everyone and have a great time in New York.

Click here for the full list of Edgar Nominees.

MysteryPeople Review: THE LADY FROM ZAGREB by Philip Kerr

lady from zagreb

– Post by Molly

Philip Kerr’s latest Bernie Gunther novel, The Lady From Zagreb, is released today, and I am pleased to report that The Lady From Zagreb is another stellar excursion into the noir nightmare of mid-20th century history. The Lady From Zagreb is Kerr’s tenth book in his Bernie Gunther series, and perhaps that’s why the novel brings together so many strands, styles and inspirations from Kerr’s previous work, as well as continuing to expand on Bernie Gunther’s wartime experiences as a way of exploring various fronts and the incredible variety of inhumanity characterizing the period before, during, and after the Second World War. Kerr’s last few Gunther novels have placed Bernie at the scene in a number of iconic WWII moments, including the Katyn Massacre, in A Man Without Breath, and Prague under Heydrich’s less-than-gentle administration, in Prague Fatale.

The Lady From Zagreb is no exception – the novel contains, among many other priceless moments, a conference on international crime held at the Wannsee Villa, site of the more infamous Wannsee Conference, where the Final Solution officially became Nazi policy. As per usual, Kerr treads a fine line between pointing out those ludicrous and somewhat humorous aspects of the Nazi regime, elegantly incorporating mystery genre conventions into an appropriate historicity, and plunging his audience into the daily horror that is the fascist reality.

Kerr’s setting and his style are the perfect fit once again, as Bernie Gunther takes a tour of the worst Ustaše (a Croatian puppet government of the Nazis) atrocities in wartime Croatia while on assignment from Goebbels to locate the missing father of a Slavic film star. Upon his return to Germany, Gunther must go off to Switzerland to convince the actress to star in an upcoming propaganda film. While Bernie’s time in bombed-out Berlin and carnage-strewn Croatia will please those fans of Kerr’s wartime novels, Gunther’s trip to Switzerland, Europe’s impossibly peaceful valley of the uncanny, acts as a worthy heir to the menacing atmosphere yet relatively low body-count of Kerr’s Berlin Noir Trilogy, or more recently, Prague Fatale, Kerr’s tribute to the locked-room mystery, which I can only describe as ridiculously amazing.

Kerr’s work draws much of its literary power from the basic irony of trying to solve a small crime in the midst of a large crime – a theme historical detective fiction returns to over and over, examples including, but not limited to, Robert Wilson’s A Small Death In Lisbon, Hans Helmutt Kirst’s Night of the Generals, or in Marek Krajewski’s The Minotaur’s Head. The small crime acts as a measurement for the larger one, contextualizing its magnitude, and increasing the novel’s resonance. Kerr’s Gunther series, as it has evolved, has continuously explored this contrast in a number of different environments, and at this point, Kerr has managed to bring to life, through small investigations by a clear-eyed yet sentimental protagonist, many of the worst moments of the twentieth century.

One of my favorite things about Philip Kerr’s novels is that they solve a basic plausibility problem of the detective genre: one of those nit-picky details that has always bothered me about detective novels set in peacetime, or in countries with incredibly low murder rates, is that the fictional murders tend to vastly outpace real-life statistics. Fortunately, when you set a detective novel in Nazi Germany, you can kill off as many characters as you would like, and the novel will remain plausible throughout. Although it would be near-impossible for The Lady From Zagreb to outpace the body count of previous novels, never fear – Kerr’s latest certainly keeps pace.


 You can find copies of The Lady From Zagreb on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Keep a lookout later in the month for an interview with Philip Kerr.