Philip Kerr first made money as an author when he was 12 years old, writing and then renting out pornographic stories “for the edification of his schoolmates”. His first title – "The Duchess and the Daisies" – was heavily influenced by Lady Chatterley’s Lover, one of the titles his father kept on a top shelf under lock and key, and which Kerr devoured the moment his old man’s back was turned. "The Duchess and the Daisies" was discovered in the hands of a schoolmate and the author’s identity made public. Instead of anything so conventional as a beating, Kerr’s father, an austere Edinburgh businessman devised a brilliantly sadistic punishment: Kerr was made to read his work to his own mother.
"She fled the room after a couple of sentences, thank God,” he says, “but it gave me quite an insight into the power of words.”
Since then he has put pornography behind him and he now does most of his book-based research in the Wiener Library, newly moved to Russell Square. The library had been based in what sounded like very parlous conditions in Devonshire Street, where the cellar flooded every winter. The archive, built up by Alfred Wiener during the 1930s and brought to London from Amsterdam in 1939, concerns political resistance to Hitler, and was garnered from interviews with exiles as they fled various anti-Semitic pogroms.
During the Second World War, it was loaned to British intelligence who mined it for information about German internal politics. Since the end of the war the archive has been added to piecemeal, and as the last survivors of the Nazi era die, many leave it their papers. According to Kerr, new insights into the regime emerge every day.
He cuts a dapper figure, in silk and cashmere, breezily at home in the smart new Wolfson Reading Room, where the autumn sun floods in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Though in 1993 Kerr was on Granta’s list of Best Young British Novelists and has written a score of novels since (including a string of entertaining children’s books under the name of PB Kerr) he is perhaps best known today for his series of Bernie Gunther novels.
Gunther is a wisecracking world-weary policeman navigating his way through the mean streets of Berlin, just as they become all the meaner for the arrival of the Nazis. The moral complexity of the novels comes in part from the way in which the small crimes are held up against the larger crime of the regime itself, and in part from Kerr’s colourful characterisation, not just of the players, but the backdrop of Berlin itself.
Kerr is not alone in feeling the strange pull of Berlin. He cites Isherwood and Spender who went there for “cheap sex” but also David Bowie, who moved there in the 1970s. Kerr came to the city through a different and rather circuitous path. After his parents moved from Edinburgh to Northampton (“a town roughly equidistance between Birmingham and London, suffering the advantages of neither”) he studied law at Birmingham University and then took a postgraduate course in law and philosophy, during which he became interested in the influence of the Romantic Movement on legal philosophy.
“The most interesting legal philosophy is German,” he says, “so naturally I went to Germany, particularly to Berlin, quite a bit.”
At this stage he fancied being an academic because, he reasoned, it would give him plenty of time to write, something he’d always wanted to do (despite or because of the experience of reading to his mother). He wanted, he says, to be William Boyd II, and applied to various universities including Lagos, who replied to his application months later with an acceptance letter on which someone wearing a size 12 army boot had trodden, leaving a perfect print, “suggesting that everyone knew nothing would come of it”. So he stayed in London, working as a copywriter at Saatchi & Saatchi, abandoning his dreams of being Boyd and instead imagining himself as Martin Amis II, back when Martin Amis was good.
He refuses to tell me if he was responsible for any “Naughty but Nice” or “Go to Work on an Egg”-style lines, which he says have plagued the lives of “Salman” and “Fay” (Rushdie and Weldon famously came up with these slogans when they worked in advertising) but describes in wistful tones the atmosphere of the Saatchi & Saatchi offices during the 1980s. “Everyone seemed to be writing a novel,” he says, “except those who were at lunch. Whenever anyone popped in to my office they’d find me clattering away at my IBM Selectric and they’d think: ‘Ah, Phil’s working’. Or I’d sneak off to the British Library or the Weiner Library for research, pretending I was at lunch.”
After finishing various unpublished novels he started work on the novel that would eventually be called March Violets, Bernie Gunther’s first investigation. His idea for Bernie came the moment he found himself wondering what Raymond Chandler would have come up with if instead of leaving London for Los Angeles, he’d gone east, to Berlin.
An oddity of the books is that Kerr wrote three in quick succession – March Violets in 1989, The Pale Criminal in 1990 and A German Requiem in 1991 – and then stopped.
“I didn’t want to just get on the treadmill and march away,” he explains. “I wanted to take risks, try something different. That’s the real joy of being a writer. Besides, I’d spent too long leafing through all this stuff about the Nazis. It was like being in their company and after finishing each book I felt I needed a shower.”
But in Bernie Gunther Kerr had created a character people couldn't resist. So 15 years later, Kerr gave in to “a critical mass” of the reading public who demanded he went back to good old Bernie.
That first “new” book, The One from the Other, was greeted with rapturous applause, like the return of an old friend, but it was hardly a homecoming, because it was set after the War, and was the beginning of Bernie’s travels as he went, like some latter-day Flying Dutchman, along the network of escape routes the Nazis had established after the fall of their Reich. Now, five “new” novels later, Kerr has abandoned the chronological order, and Prague Fatale is set back in 1942, in the Czech city under the command of Reinhard Heydrich, where Bernie is set the task of investigating a locked-room murder.
“I always worry I’ve probably written one too many Bernie Gunther books, and that I should probably give him his gold watch. One or two of the commentators on Amazon seem to think so anyway…”
He trails off, his eyes flicking over all the spines of the books lining the library walls, a trove of new stories, and I can’t help feeling that there are many more details contained in these books that could be usefully exposed to Bernie Gunther’s prying eye.