Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series has it all. Excitement, pathos, history, wisecracking humour, suspense, tension, world weariness, and brilliant, beautiful writing. There is absolutely nothing to be found wrong with these books. Such a frightful shame Philip passed away last year.
This is the reading order, as it is the published order. The series was, I think, progressing according to Bernie’s life, but most of the contents of the books, are in fact not flashbacks, but incidents in the here and now, that originated in Bernie’s previous, wartime, life. Something like that.
For March Violets, The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem, I recommend you pick up the combined book (pictured). Convenient, probably cheaper than buying (new) copies of the individual books, and because the original covers are appallingly dreadful. Though you can now pick up some updated versions which are marginally less shocking. The rest of the series shows the covers of the versions I have.
You will need to buy read these, if you haven’t already, so click on the cover and you’ll go to The Book Depository.
1. March Violets (1989)
A man and his wife shot dead in their bed, their home burned. The woman’s father, a millionaire industrialist, wants justice – and the priceless diamonds that disappeared along with his daughter’s life. He turns to Bernhard Gunther, a private eye and former cop.
As Bernie follows the trail into the very heart of Nazi Germany, he’s forced to confront a horrifying conspiracy. A trail that ends in the hell that is Dachau . . .
Stylishly written and powerfully evocative, Kerr’s crime classic transports readers to the rotten heart of Nazi Berlin, and introduces a private eye in the great tradition of Hammett and Chandler.
2. The Pale Criminal (1990)
The second in the late Philip Kerr’s iconic ‘Berlin Noir’ trilogy, The Pale Criminal sees detective Bernie Gunther return to hunt one of the most evil killers in human history.
It is 1938 and Bernie Gunther is back on the mean streets of Berlin with his new partner, Bruno Stahlecker, another ex-police officer. But on a seemingly straightforward stakeout, Bruno is killed, and Bernie suddenly finds himself tapped for a much bigger job.
A serial sex murderer is killing Aryan teenage girls in Berlin – and what’s worse, he’s making utter fools of the police. Gunther is forced to accept a temporary post in Obergruppenfuehrer Reinhard Heydrich’s state Security Service, with a team of men underneath him tasked purely with hunting the killer.
But can he trust his team any more than he can trust his superiors?
An unflinching, fast-paced thriller exploring the grisly excesses of Nazi subculture, The Pale Criminal will be loved by fans of Robert Harris and Frederick Forsythe.
3. A German Requiem (1991)
In the bitter winter of 1947 the Russian Zone is closing ever more tightly around Berlin. So when an enigmatic Russian colonel asks Bernie Gunther to go to Vienna, where his ex-Kripo colleague Emil Becker faces a murder charge, Bernie doesn’t hesitate for long. Despite Becker’s unsavoury past, Gunther is convinced that shooting an American Nazi-hunter is one crime he didn’t commit.
But Vienna is not the peaceful haven Bernie expects it to be. Communism is the new enemy, and with the Nuremberg trials over, some strange alliances are being forged against the Red Menace – alignments that make many wartime atrocities look lily-white by comparison.
Vividly evoking the atmosphere of postwar Vienna, A Germen Requiem brings all Philip Kerr’s pace and mordant wit to the tangle of guilt, suspicion, and double-dealing that laid the foundations for the Cold War.
4. The One From The Other (2007)
Amid the chaos of defeat, Germany is home to all the backstabbing intrigue that prospers in the aftermath of war. A place where a private eye like Bernie Gunther can find a lot of not-quite-reputable work: cleaning up the Nazi past of well-to-do locals, abetting fugitives in the flight abroad, sorting out rival claims to stolen goods. It is work that fills Bernie with disgust – but it fills his sorely depleted wallet.
Then a woman seeks him out. Her husband has disappeared. She’s not looking to get him back – he’s a wanted man who ran one of the most vicious concentration camps in Poland. She just wants confirmation he’s dead.
It seems a simple enough job. But in post-war Germany, nothing is simple…
5. A Quiet Flame (2008)
Bernie Gunther, Berlin’s hardest-boiled private eye, returns in this his latest outing. Moving the plot from Pre-War Germany to the dangers of Argentina in 1950 and the post-war world of Hitler’s most notorious war-criminals, Kerr yet again delivers a powerful, compelling thriller.Posing as an escaping Nazi war-criminal Bernie Gunther arrives in Buenos Aires and, having revealed his real identity to the local chief of police, discovers that his reputation as a detective goes before him.A young girl has been murdered in peculiarly gruesome circumstances that strongly resemble Bernie’s final case as a homicide detective with the Berlin police during the dog days of the Weimar Republic. A case he had failed to solve.Circumstances lead the chief of police in Buenos Aires to suppose that the murderer may be one of several thousand ex Nazis who have fetched up in Argentina since 1945. And, therefore, who better than Bernie Gunther to help him track that murderer down? Reluctantly Bernie agrees to help the police and discovers much more than he, or even they bargained for.
Redolent with atmosphere and featuring compelling portraits of real characters such as Eva and Juan Peron, Adolf Eichmann, and Otto Skorzeny this novel ends up asking some highly provocative questions about the true extent of Argentina’s Nazi collaboration and anti-Semitism under the Perons.
6. If The Dead Rise Not (2009)
Berlin, 1934. The Nazis have been in power for just eighteen months but already Germany has seen some unpleasant changes. As the city prepares to host the 1936 Olympics, Jews are being expelled from all German sporting organisations – a blatant example of discrimination.
Forced to resign as a homicide detective with Berlin’s Criminal Police, Bernie Gunther is now house detective at the famous Adlon Hotel. The discovery of two bodies – one a businessman and the other a Jewish boxer – draws Bernie into the lives of two hotel guests. One is a beautiful left-wing journalist intent on persuading America to boycott the Berlin Olympiad; the other is a Chicago gangster who plans to use the Olympics to enrich himself and the Chicago mob. As events unfold, Bernie uncovers a vast labour and construction racket designed to take advantage of the huge sums the Nazis are prepared to spend to showcase the new Germany to the world. It is a plot that only finds its true conclusion twenty years later in pre-revolution Cuba.
7. Field Grey (2010)
‘A man doesn’t work for his enemies unless he has little choice in the matter.’
So says Bernie Gunther. It is 1954 and Bernie is in Cuba. Tiring of his increasingly dangerous work spying on Meyer Lansky, Bernie acquires a boat and a beautiful companion and quits the island. But the US Navy has other ideas, and soon he finds himself in a place with which he is all too familiar – a prison cell. After exhaustive questioning, he is flown back to Berlin and yet another prison cell with a proposition: work for French intelligence or hang for murder.
The job is simple: he is to meet and greet POWs returning to Germany and to look out for one in particular, a French war criminal and member of the French SS who has been posing as a German Wehrmacht officer. The French are anxious to catch up with this man and deal with him in their own ruthless way. But Bernie’s past as a German POW in Russia is about to catch up with him – in a way he could never have foreseen.
Bernie Gunther’s seventh outing delivers more of the fast-paced and quick-witted action that we have come to expect from Philip Kerr. Set in Cuba, a Soviet POW camp, Paris and Berlin, and ranging over a period of twenty years from the Thirties to the Fifties, Field Grey is an outstanding thriller by a writer at the top of his game.
8. Prague Fatal (2011)
1942, somewhere outside Prague.
In a house full of murderers, anything is possible.
Bernie Gunther returns to his desk on homicide from the horrors of the Eastern Front to find Berlin changed for the worse.
SS-General Reinhard Heydrich, the darkest member of the Nazi elite, orders detective Bernie Gunther to spend a weekend at his country house. It’s an invitation Bernie accepts reluctantly, especially when he learns that his fellow guests are all senior figures from the SS and SD.
The weekend quickly turns sour when a body is found in a room locked from the inside. Bernie has to wrestle with an impossible mystery. But solve it he must – Reinhard Heydrich is a man who cannot bear to lose face.
9. A Man Without Breath (2013)
Berlin, March 1943.
The mood in Germany is bleak after the stunning defeat at Stalingrad. Private Investigator Bernie Gunther is at work in the German War Crimes Bureau – weary, cynical but well aware of the value of truth in a world where that’s now a rarity.
When human remains are found deep in the Karyn Forest, Bernie is sent to investigate. Rumour has it that this mass grave is full of Polish officers murdered by the Russians. For Josef Goebbels, proof of Russian involvement is sure to destroy the Western Alliance, giving Germany a chance to reverse its devastation losses. But supposing the truth is far more damaging to the German cause?
It’s Bernie Gunther’s job to give Goebels what he needs. But when there’s nothing left for Gunther to lose, the compulsion to speak the truth becomes even stronger…
10. The Lady From Zagreb (2015)
When Bernie Gunther is ordered to speak at an international police conference, an old acquaintance has a favour to ask. Little does Bernie suspect what this simple surveillance task will provoke…
One year later, resurfacing from the hell of the Eastern Front, Bernie receives another task that seems straightforward: locating the father of Dalia Dresner, the rising star of German cinema. And if escaping Berlin for a beautiful woman isn’t motivation enough, there’s the small matter of the request’s origin: Goebbels himself.
But Dresner’s father hails from Yugoslavia, a country so riven by sectarian horrors that even Bernie’s stomach is turned. And meanwhile the previous year’s cold case lingers on, and there’s only so long Bernie can stay away.
Bernie hasn’t mellowed one iota, and his mordant wit and cynical observations are as sharp as ever. But even with monsters at home and abroad, one thing alone drives him on from Berlin to Zagreb to Zurich: Bernie Gunther has fallen in love.
11. The Other Side Of Silence (2016)
It is 1956 on the French Riviera. A world-weary Bernie Gunther is working as concierge at the Grand Hotel, St. Jean Cap Ferrari, living under a false name. The Riviera retains its louche glamour even in these gloomy post-war years – a sunny place for shady people.
Bernie plays bridge to stave off boredom and misses his old detective life. Then his past walks through the door in the shape of Harold Hennig, a former captain in the Nazi security service. Bernie never forgets a face, especially when it belongs to a mass murderer who, in 1945, was responsible for the deaths of thousands, among them a woman Bernie lived. Since the war, Hennig has enjoyed a lucrative career as a blackmailer.
Hennig’s target on the Côte d’Azur is a famous resident with a dark past and plenty to hide – the writer, Somerset Maugham. A shared love of bridge draws Bernie to Maugham’s magnificent Villa Mauresque, where Maugham tells him of a compromising photograph that reveals a lot more about Maugham’s life than his notorious sexuality. Taken in 1937, it shows a group of naked men beside a swimming pool – one of whom is the infamous spy and homosexual, Guy Burgess, who, with Donald Maclean, has recently defected to Moscow. Hennig has the photograph and is demanding $50,000 for its release.
Bernie is reluctant to become Maugham’s agent but his former life has made him as vulnerable to blackmail as Maugham himself. Not only that – he has a massive score to settle with Hennig.
12. Prussian Blue (2017)
France, 1956. Bernie Gunther is on the run. If there’s one thing he’s learned, it’s never to refuse a job from a high-ranking secret policeman. But this is exactly what he’s just done. Now he’s a marked man, with the East German Stasi on his tail.
Fleeing across Europe, he remembers the last time he worked with his pursuer: in 1939, to solve a murder at the Berghof, Hitler’s summer hideaway in the Bavarian Alps. Hitler is long dead, the Berghof now a ruined shell, and the bizarre time Bernie spent there should be np more than a distant memory.
But as he pushes on to Berlin and safety, Bernie will find that no matter how far he thinks he has put Nazi Germany behind him, for him it will always be unfinished business. The Berghof has not done with Bernie yet.
13. Greeks Bearing Gifts (2018)
1957, Munich. Bernie Gunther’s latest move in a string of varied careers sees him working for an insurance company. It makes a kind of sense: both cops and insurance companies have a vested interest in figuring out when people are lying to them, and Bernie has a lifetime of experience to call on.
Sent to Athens to investigate a claim from a fellow German for a sunken ship, Bernie takes an instant dislike to the claimant. When he discovers that the ship in question once belonged to a Greek Jew deported to Auschwitz, he is convinced the sinking was no accident but an act of vengeance.
And so Bernie is once again drawn inexorably back to the dark history of the Second World War, and the deportation of the Jews of Salonika – now Thessaloniki. As Europe prepares to move on to a more united future with Germany as a partner rather than an enemy, at least one person in Greece is ready neither to forgive nor forget. And, deep down, Bernie thinks they may have a point.
14. Metropolis (2019)
Summer, 1928. Berlin, a city where nothing is verboten.
In the night streets, political gangs wander, looking for fights. Daylight reveals a beleaguered populace barely recovering from the postwar inflation, often jobless, reeling from the reparations imposed by the victors.
At central police HQ, the Murder Commission has its hands full. A killer is on the loose and though he scatters many clues, each is a dead end. It’s almost as if he is taunting the cops. Meanwhile, the press is having a field day. This is what Bernie Gunther finds on his first day with the Murder Commission. He’s been taken on beacause the people at the top have noticed him – they think he has the makings of a first-rate detective. But not just yet. Right now, he has to listen and learn.
Metropolis is also a tour of a city in chaos: of its seedy sideshows and sex clubs, of the underground gangs that run its rackets, and its bewildered citizens–the lost, the homeless, the abandoned. It is Berlin as it edges toward the new world order that Hitler will soon usher in. And Bernie? He’s a quick study and he’s learning a lot. Including, to his chagrin, that when push comes to shove, he isn’t much better than the gangsters in doing whatever her must to get what he wants.