Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Philip Kerr: that's Philip with one "l", thank you very much

The only thing worse would probably be to say, "sorry, Phil." Yes, his last name has one "el", not two. I'd fire my fact-checker if ... Yes, well, we see one disadvantage of reviewing or commenting on books without physical access to them any more (can't find anything around here). However, "Dark Matter" is around the corner, and Google is at my finger tips, so "my bad" as they say.

The first thing I read by Mr. Kerr was A Philosophical Investigation. This was at a time, 1994 (I checked!), when one of the many waves of the genetics revolution was washing over us, or over me, and the premise of the book was fascinating. At some point in the near future, a murder gene (or, say, single nucleotide polymorphism- an inheritable mutation by any other name) had been identified, and the whole population of England had its DNA sequenced to identify those who might have a tendency to commit violent crime or murder. The names of unfortunate individuals were inscribed on a secret list (on a computer, back when we thought they might keep secrets), the list to be consulted only when a murder took place that correlated with the location of an "obvious suspect", or something like that. But, the secret list was compromised, taken, by a serial killer who began preemptively knocking off the people and presumably enjoying it. Of course, these now doubly-unfortunate souls only had a heightened tendency toward violence and murder, there was no certainty that they would ever commit a crime. They were, at the time of their murders, usually entirely innocent. The writing immediately pulled me in, and I read with gusto, as someone with unusual computer skills and a high capacity for planning and deception was clearly involved in sparing with the female lead investigator. It seemed to me that there was one minor error in the edition I had (hardcover- those were the days): a medical acronym was not given the correct full name. I can't remember what it was, and maybe I wasn't even correct. Something like a PET scan (for Positron Emission Tomography). The thing is I felt guilty for years because I never wrote to the author correct this. How many books make you feel anything for years? Well, in my case, more than one, as you'll know from reading below, but I'm writing about many of my favorite books first. I wonder if that kind of revelation will still be appearing in a few weeks. OK, this is not about me (or not supposed to be). The point is that A Philosophical Investigation is a very good book, and I think some of it was over my head, in the mental game playing and philosophy arenas, but not in a condescending or demeaning way... and I was a lot younger then.

So if you like your serial killers to be brilliant, and you want to read about them engaging in a deadly game of 4-D chess with nearly fanatical female detectives who can match each calculated move in time and space, you've come to the right book. It immediately sent me looking for more by Mr. Kerr and I read the three Berlin detective stories that I could find. One was pre-WWII, one was right at the start of the war and one was a bit post-war. They are available as three books (March Violets, The Pale Criminal, A German Requiem) or collected in one volume (the Berlin Noir I've already referred to). These are not happy books, though they are not without some victories for truth, but it is obviously odd to imagine a police detective investigating the crime of murder when genocide was being planned and executed, and when the World itself was at war. But, as these detectives will tell you, they are "just doing their job, ma'am." This is, of course, true, though the compromises necessary for survival complicated any sense of justice as the rapid approach of the war and its long aftermath gripped Europe (and the Pacific). Nevertheless, our man was on the job. The way he pursued the investigations without regard for his own safety turned out to be dangerous for friends, but also for enemies. It is easy to find villains in that world, but Kerr gives us a man we can live with through the troubles, and who demands some respect, even as he is at least somewhat complicit in the larger, terrible picture of that time. They were human beings "on the other side", following Hitler, which is why it can be so incomprehensible. As Martin Amis said, they got it so wrong that, if the Germans had done exactly the opposite of what they did, it would have been the right thing. The human qualities were repressed enough in most, by a certain point, that they might never have existed at all.

So the verdict? These are gritty and suspenseful historical fiction, where justice tries to prevail and the backdrop is ultimate evil. Read them now, read them and weep.

Thanks for your patience while I rode the untamed scripts tonight. The JAVA was too hot to handle at times.

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