Metropolis by Phillip Kerr

It’s a Mystery, posts by Irma Heldman

Metropolis: A Bernie Gunther Novel
By Philip Kerr
A Marian Wood book/ Putnam 2019

Metropolis: A Bernie Gunther Novel By Philip Kerr, A Marian Wood book/ Putnam 2019

This is the 14th and final Bernie Gunther novel (after 2018’s Greeks Bearing Gifts) due to author Philip Kerr’s untimely death in March 2018. Metropolis is Bernie’s origin story. We meet the gimlet-eyed gumshoe with a penchant for wiseass humor in the summer of 1928.  Berlin is a modern Babylon, bursting with artistic creativity as well as unprecedented sexual freedom, yet it’s also witnessing the rise of virulent anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant and anti-gay fervor, and street battles between political extremists on the Right and Left. Like Bernie, its people are still suffering from the devastating psychic and physical wounds of World War I, with which he is only too well acquainted from his four years on the Western Front.

Bernie’s skills as a vice cop have earned him a place on the Berlin Murder Commission.  It’s the elite homicide investigation unit irreverently known as the Murder Wagon. Insiders often refer to it as the Alex because of the address. As Bernie explains when he’s put on the Commission:

In 1928, vice in all its permutations was my departmental responsibility at the Police Praesidium on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. Criminalistically speaking—which was a new word for us cops—I knew almost as much about the subject of vice as Gilles de Rais.

And in the words of Berlin’s chief of police, Bernhard Weiss:

In our opinion you’ve the makings of a fine detective, Gunther. You are diligent and you know when to keep your mouth shut; that’s good in a detective. Very good…. So welcome to the Murder Commission, Gunther. The rest of your life just changed forever. …From now on, whenever you stand next to a man at a bus stop or on a train, you’ll be sizing him up as a potential killer.

Bernie’s first assignment is the so-called Silesian Station Killings—four local prostitutes murdered in as many weeks. Always at night. The first one near Silesian Station. All of them hit over the head with a ball hammer and then scalped with a very sharp knife. He’s just about through the case files, when another girl is murdered. This one’s father is heavily connected to organized crime, German style and will stop at nothing to find his daughter’s killer.

Mid-assignment, so to speak, there is an outbreak of killings among the city’s maimed veterans. These are the half-men begging on wheels called cripple-carts or klutz wagons. Claiming responsibility for their murders in taunting letters to the police is a man who signs himself Dr. Gnadenschuss (which translates as coup de grâce or death blow). Bernie agrees to go undercover posing as a disabled vet. To pull off the deception, Weiss introduces him to Brigitte, a beautiful young make-up artist who transforms his appearance. Natürlich, they begin an affair.  She is working on the inaugural production of The Threepenny Opera. She has also worked for the film studio UFA on Fritz Lang’s recently released silent film masterpiece Metropolis.

As Bernie moves through the seamy side of Weimar Germany, he encounters a mindboggling array of suspects. From the heights of Berlin society to its depths, from pimps to party girls, gang bosses to philandering government ministers. The city itself is also a protagonist:

A great big department store of debauchery. The city was like a large ship, Bernie thinks, that had slipped its mooring and was slowly drifting further and further away from the coast of Germany. It’s not a place for the fainthearted, either, especially after dark. There is something about all that neon light at night that seems to bleach out a man’s spirit.

Ultimately, Bernie concludes that there is only one killer eliminating the prostitutes and the cripples and that he’s a cop. The problem is that his cohorts in crime-solving think he’s crazy. And even if he can prove it, can he risk putting the already shaky reputation of the Berlin police department in further jeopardy, at a time when the voice of Nazism is becoming a roar that threatens to drown out all others?

Incisive, intelligent, mesmerizing, mordantly witty, masterfully written, Metropolis is the author at the top of his game. Auf wiedersehen Mr. Gunther and Mr. Kerr—you will be sorely missed.  

--Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.