One of the best parts about reviewing books and inteviewing authors for Newsvine is that publishers not only send me - usually - free copies of books bymy favorite authors (in exchange for the hope I will write about it) but that often they will send other books as well. Sometimes those books have surprised me. How did they know, for example, how much I would love the idea of a detective story written by the detective's dog but I did.
Sure, sometimes the stuff they send leaves me scratching my head. I was sent not one but two copies of a book aimed at women giving suggestions on how they should go about selecting their husbands.
I mention this because this is one such book. The name, Philip Kerr, sounded familiar, and it included a compliment from Patrick Anderson, the Washington Post thriller review, whose opinion I trust and whose book on the mystery genre I can't recommend highly enough.
I gave it a try and it blew me away. It manages to do something which I wasn't sure would be possible - it places a hard-living smartass-talking private eye type in Nazi German without it seeming like a contrivance. I think I will be going back to read the other books by Kerr, especially those featuring, like this one, the protagonist of Bernie Gunther.
We conducted this interview via email
Scott: What was your goal for this novel? Did it differ from your goals for your other novels?
My goal with each novel is to make it the best novel I've written. Anything less just won't do. More specific to the character, Bernie Gunther, I wanted to take him somewhere new and interesting while at the same time describing him in Berlin, which is his strongest setting and which people seem to like. Thus I have a two part story set in Berlin and Cuba, in 1954.
Did you do research for this and, if so, what did that involve?
I do a lot of research of course. Mostly that means quite a lot of reading and a bit of travel to check out a few things. But as always the most important research is the research I do in my own head. Put another way it's the spin that one's imagination puts on the ball that curves the ball in an interesting way.
Do you ever laugh as you write such funny lines as "Dictatorships always look good until someone starts giving you dictation."
I smile a lot when I'm writing these books, yes. I try to amuse myself, I suppose. The subject can be pretty grim and a few blackly humorous lines are often the best way of alleviating the gloom of Berlin in the 1930s. In a sense Bernie's sense of humor is his own real act of resistance against the Nazis.
What are the advantages of using a recurring character, the irrestistable Bernie Gunther, versus stand alone novels?
The advantage is that with each novel I can reveal just a little bit more of his character than before. I try to make myself probe him more deeply each time. I don't like to leave him alone. I'm like a shrink trying to get to the bottom of who and what he is. Someone once said that all novels are a kind of therapy so maybe that's not so very far from the truth after all.
Who are your five favorite living writers and why?
I'm not sure I can think of five. John Le Carre is our best living writer in my opinion. The Spy who Came in from the Cold is perhaps the defining novel of the Cold War. But he seems to have reinvented himself rather successfully as a writer of ethical thrillers. I am very fond of Howard Jacobson's novels: he's Britain's answer to Philip Roth, but much much funnier. William Boyd, I like. My wife Jane Thynne is a fine writer. Irvine Welsh is very funny. Well there you are. I managed to get five after all.
What has been the high and low points in your career?
There have been lots of high points, fortunately. High point was publishing my first book. That's the high point for everyone I think. Bad reviews don't really matter. Nor does writing novels that don't meet with a publisher's approval. This happens. From time to time there is always going to be something that goes wrong so you might as well shrug it off. I'm trying to think of a low point. I'm sure there must have been some. But I can't think of any.
What was it like to win Spain's RBA International Prize?
Well that was certainly a high point. It's nice to win prizes. But it certainly didn't go to my head. I tend not to believe praise. I pay more attention to criticism.
What are you working on next?
A new Bernie Gunther novel and after that another children's book. Somewhere between the two I have a screenplay to write. Plenty of work thanks.
I LOVE this paragraph. How long would writing a gem like that take you?
The man uttering these words had a face like the Golem of Prague and a barrel-shaped body that belonged on a beer cart. He wore a short leather coat and a cap with a peak that grew straight out of his forehead. He had ears like an Indian elephant, a mustache like a toilet brush, and more chins than a Shanghai telephone directory. Even before he flicked the end of his cigarette at the brass band and hit the bass drum, a gap had opened around this ill-advised commentator, as if he were carrying a deadly disease. And no one wanted to be around when the Gestapo showed up with its own idea of a cure.
When I'm having fun a paragraph like that can take perhaps ten minutes?
Do you play much backgammon? I love the game so I got excited when you described it and will promote the book a bit to some gammonheads
Yes, I have been playing the game for thirty years. There's a casino at the Ritz Club in London (in the basement of the Ritz hotel) and I play there sometimes. For money of course. I don't much care for bridge or poker. I watch it on TV but I honestly think there's more skill in backgammon. Computers never seem able to handle the concept of the doubling cube which is half the game in my opinion. At least if you play it aggressively, which I do. When I was at university I started a backgammon club and found it a very good way to get inside the heads of the women who joined.
Did you visit cuba as part of any research or pleasure when working on this book?
Cuba. Ah, yes. Cuba. Hmm. I try not to talk about my foreign trips. For a couple of reasons. I feel it's like Penn and Teller talking about how a magic trick works. It kind of spoils it. Another thing is that I don't like being asked to talk about a country I hardly know. Being in Cuba or Argentina for a week isn't enough to be able to do anything more than check out a few top line details. You're not an expert, but you have to write about the place as if you are. And for some people that's irritating. I am happy talking about Germany because I know that country so much better.
Indeed, last year I gave a dozen Spanish journalists a topography of terror tour of Berlin; and I'm doing the same this May with a dozen French journalists. I've been going to Berlin for twenty-five years and I know the city in ways that Berliners themselves don't know. I feel like some kind of time traveller when I'm there. Everything I look at, I'm seeing what was behind it. I'm seeing ghosts everywhere. I'm like the kid in the Sixth Sense.