Philip Kerr’s last book

October 19, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers, writing.

Author Philip Kerr got very bad news in July 2017. He had stage 4 cancer, and the doctor gave him between one and two years to live — although, she said, she had had a patient in his condition that lived for five years.

“I’ve got five years,” Kerr said to his wife, Jane, when they got to their car outside the doctor’s office.

He didn’t. He lived for only eight more months.

But during that time he wrote every day, as he had always done, and he even wrote in the chemotherapy office while awaiting his treatments. He had one more Bernie Gunther novel to write, and he was determined to finish it.

Gunther was the skeptical police detective that Kerr puts inside Nazi Germany in the 1930s. It’s an odd place for a tough, cynical, independent man to be. But Kerr knew enough about the time and place to make it believable.

As Jane Kerr writes of those last months with Philip:

Philip’s was a remarkable talent and it was fascinating to see it operating close up over the space of thirty years. Before we met he had written a couple of unpublished novels while he searched for his theme, before working out the perfect combination of what he loved – detective fiction and twentieth century Germany. In particular, he was tickled by the idea of a detective solving everyday crimes against the backdrop of the greatest crime of the century. As Bernie says in The Lady From Zagreb, ‘Being a Berlin cop in 1942 was a little like putting down mousetraps in a cage full of tigers.’ Source: Hello from Philip’s wife, Jane, | Philip Kerr

Kerr took the last eight months of his life to produce a final novel, Metropolis. This one takes Gunther back to pre-Nazi Weimar Germany and to a time when Gunther is a young police detective.

Kerr was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1956 and worked as an advertising copywriter before becoming a full-time writer. He published his first novel in 1989 and was prolific for the remainder of his life. Not only did he write the Bernie Gunther novels, but he also wrote children’s books (The Children of the Lamp series) and non-fiction works. His Bernie Gunther character is a cynical, hard-bitten character who navigates the dangerous Nazi shoals with a lot of verve and a little luck.

Introducing his last novel, Jane Kerr writes:

I have never met any writer with more ideas. He loved mining the events of twentieth-century Europe and was always on the lookout for a country or situation in which Bernie might intervene. Perhaps our happiest times were research trips; whether to the Berghof, or Heydrich’s country home in Prague, or Potsdam. . . .

Counter-intuitively, Philip did not want his last novel to feature an aging Bernie, and thus Metropolis takes his hero back to 1928 when he was a young cop, just starting out. Most readers like their Bernie world-weary – the jaded, philosophical Gunther who says, ‘I’m no longer young enough, nor quite thin enough, to share a single bed with anything other than a hangover or a cigarette’. They might wonder if a fresh-faced younger model can measure up.

They needn’t worry. As Metropolis triumphantly reveals, cynicism, mockery, intelligence and wit were always Bernie’s birthright.

Kerr died on March 23, 2018.

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