Category Archives: Philip Kerr

One of the better reading weekends of the year

One of the annuals is the arrival of the new Donna Leon. That was last weekend. The next couple of days are going to be the new Philip Kerr.

The fragrant Ms Leon counts twenty-six Guido Brunetti stories. I have a quick check of that corner of the shelves: —

— hmmm … I reckon I’m missing four. Which, by inference, tells me:

  • when I went beyond borrowing from the local library,
  • when I upgraded from there paperback to the hard-back, and
  • (probably the same moment) when I began buying regularly “on line”.

My OCD ought to make me complete the set by acquiring the missing items. I’ve even gone to the extent of listing them:

  • #3: The Anonymous Venetian;
  • #4: A Venetian Reckoning;
  • #10: A Sea of Troubles;
  • #11: Wilful Behaviour.

On further thoughts, I’d reckon the last two there were once also “mine”; but have been borrowed or “fecked” over the years. Anyway: it’s pleasing to notice that I’ve shelved them in series order.

Then I have a further problem. A sense of neatness means for symmetry I need the old, smaller, paperback format (is that A-format?) for the first two, and  hardbacks, with dust-covers, for the latter two.

By the way, books are the only aspect of my life that come so orderly and ordered. But, then, in  my world, books are about the most important consideration.

Earthly Remains

The new Leon, then, follows one of the usual tropes of the detective-fiction canon. Josephine Tey put her “Alan Grant” into a hospital bed to find The Daughter of Time. That set a pattern. Michael Dibden (the only rival that Leon could possibly have for a Venetian hero — but she has gathered far more moss than he)) gave “Aurelio Zen” gut problems to — literally — put him on the beach. Now Donna Leon has “Brunetti” retreat to an island in the Lagoon to escape a minor crisis at the Questura. In each story, the “mystery” comes to the central character, rather than the more usual other way round.

This means that, in Earthly Remains, we have less of home in Calle Tiepolo, of the noble Paola and the two Brunetti children, but rather more of Brunetti’s own family background.

As always, with a Leon story, the back-end of the book acquires excitement — not from the conventional stand-off — so much as the accelerated conclusion.

I sit amazed how she pulls it off each time: the parallel story lines of a police procedural (with the enigmatic Signorina Elettra, always able to spirit a dea ex machine out of her amazing on-line resources) and a social issue. In this case, something of an old vamp on the chemical poisoning of the Venetian Lagoon.

My ritual here is an end-to-end read, often well into the early hours, in a single sitting.

And now to:

Prussian Blue

This follows immediately from the previous “Bernie Gunther” outing: The Other Side of Silence, when Somerset Maugham was a main feature (with the Burgess and Maclean duo just off-stage).

I’m just getting into Bernie’s debunk from the Riviera, and his need to escape from the grasp of his old mates, formerly of the Kripo, now of the Stasi.

I find I have to suspend disbelief about Bernie’s life-history. He was born, as we were told in March Violets, around 1898, in the trenches of the First World War. Here he is, fit and active in 1956. In between he has been house detective in the Adlon Hotel, had a brush with the KL- camps, stood too close to Reinhard Heydrich and most of the Nazi hierarchy, sniffed around the Katyn massacre, been a POW of the Russians, had brushes in post-war Berlin, pushed off to Buenos Aires and Havana. The “back-story” of this latest involves Berchtesgaden, and a body of the infamous terrace.

I remember, commuting across the North London line, opening the paperback compendium of the first three Bernie Gunther stories for the first time. So that would be 1993. Battered and split, but I still have it here. Oh, the joy of finding a new obsession!

A final thought: I see I have Leon and Kerr under separate “Categories” on this WordPress indexing. The latter as “fiction”, and the former as “literature”. I’d recant on that distinction.

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Filed under Donna Leon, fiction, Literature, Philip Kerr, reading

An oaf short of an oeuvre?

— We get it, Malcolm: that’s a crude pun on “an omelette short of an oeuf”.

Last night was too betaken by Thwaites’s Wainwright‘s. So the brain is trying to catch up with Wednesday. One of the many joys of life in “old” York is the variety of pubs. Even in what, I’d reckon, is the best appointed boozer in town, the Wainwright’s runs at £3.50 a pint. Just too tempting.

The case of the missing book(s)

To be subtitled: the book of the missing case.

But, once at the keyboard — an honour and a delight, wrapped in a conundrum. Refer, instantly, to the comment appended to that previous post. It’s from the Great and the Good Christopher Fowler, and every word is worth a guinea a box (and I reckon my tin ear has been well boxed therein).

I was wrongly calculating, at first sight, that the one I am missing is The Casebook of Bryant and May, Keith Page’s comic-book version of a Fowler script. That approaches as stellar a team as Humphrey Lyttelton/George Melly/Compton Mackenzie/Barry Norman writing the Flook story-lines for Wally Fawkes to illustrate. And many of those have a lingering relevance (though the Mosley reference may pass by unnoticed):

FlookBSomething will have to be done to remedy the omission (which I now see is Brant & May 5: The White Corridor).

Officia praetermissa atque relicta

[Acts of omission: that’s yer axshul snobby Latin. Not to be deployed in Rochester or places where White Vans park.]

In the mid-summer of 2013,  Redfellow Hovel, in Norf Lunnun, decamped to Redfellow Cottage, in North Yorkshire. Over five dozen boxes (and Tesco vegetable pallets) of books were part of the shift. Another dozen were diverted to the Pert Young Piece’s flat in “edgy” Crouch End.

By the nature of these things, not every book arrived where it should have done. Hence I find I am two Le Carrés short of the full set, and I know that a couple of the Fowlers are in N8. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

The accretion of books

Out of that came another thought.

How do book accumulate?

Obviously, it’s because certain people should never, ever be set loose in a book-shop armed with cash or card. The result is always a bag-full. I am one such person.

Beyond that, there is an “osmosis of genre”.

While I read the usual crime-review columns (the New York Times is far more regular and observant than any of the UK press), news-and-views are most easily found through one or other of the crime-fiction blogs. On the other hand, life is too short …

There are obvious “essentials”: the regular springtime with Donna Leon, a new Carl Hiaasen (not excluding the kid lit), Andrew Martin, Martin Cruz Smith, Rankin but of course, Philip Kerr (especially if Bernie Gunther is at the heart of another pickle), Alan Furst, a Jasper Fforde (if only) — and that promised Bryant & May by Fowler (due next March).

That’s marked out a fair bit of the yearly round. Yet it doesn’t fit the time available. So it’s the casual buys, often whipped off the two-for-one-and-a-half Waterstones tables that fill the gaps. That, for an example, is how I caught up with and spent a happy few days knocking off the Kyril Bonfigioli sequence.

Follow that notion through

It means that I am likely to encounter a new-to-me writer through a paperback. That ought to cause the chain reaction: hunt out the other books, keep up by buying hard-backs when published, and replacing the paperbacks if and when a second-hand hardback percolates through Oxfam.

Yes, there are drop-outs in the process: I gave up on Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series around L is for Lawless. Michael Dibdin died on me. I still trying to get on with Anne Cleeves. I started well with David Downing’s John Russell, but the last couple glare at me from the Guilt Pile. Robert Harris became a bit of a chore: An Officer and a Spy is in the Guilt Pile, unfinished. I have a habit of losing Christopher Brookmyre, half-read, in pubs — though the opening of Quite Ugly One Morning (the first Parlabane) is the teccie equivalent of Wodehouse’s Jeeves Specialrather like the royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince.

Which is what I needed this grey morning.

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Filed under Ben Aaronovitch, Chris Brookmyre, Christopher Fowler, Detective fiction, Donna Leon, fiction, Ian Rankin, John le Carré, Philip Kerr

Out of Zoo Station

A9781906964580_p0_v1_s260x420s trailed in the earlier post, Malcolm emerged from David Downing’s Zoo Station around midnight. And a very competent, even understated thriller it is, too. High on atmospherics and internal dialogue. No heavy gun-play. Little of that excruciating Scandinavian angst with S&M stuff (and what there is, off-stage), lately all the mode.

A bit taxing on the geography of Berlin, perhaps. Especially, Malcolm suspects, because the Allied bombing, then the division into Zones, must have been responsible for major town-planning.

And John Russell puts himself around quite  lot.

Has this book really been around these six or seven years without previous chez Malcolm? So, apologies all round.

In his earlier thoughts, Malcolm (influenced too much by the every-cover-tells-a story) was looking for similarities with Philip Kerr and Alan Furst. Yes: some are to be found. Any book that stands comparison with those two authors deserves respect.

163The end-play of Zoo Station is as tense and individualised as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Which, surely must be the high bar for this genre. [And which leaves Malcolm the niggling problem: does he need a third version on his about-to-be-installed book-shelves, now that there’s the fiftieth anniversary edition in the wild?]

Yet, Downing’s “John Russell” has dimensions not explicit in le Carré. This time round the protagonist is not an espionage professional, as is “Alec Leamas”.  He is personally, rather than corporately motivated. Hence there is little of the cynicism with which  le Carré invests his characters. Russell is acutely aware of the ever-present sheer nastiness and malevolence — not just of the Nazis, but of the Stalinists — and has to reconcile his own survival with pragmatics and his sympathetic conscience:

Waiting behind another customer for his Friday morning paper, Russell caught sight of the headline: BARCELONA FALLS. On impulse, he turned away. That was one story he didn’’t want to read. The Spanish Civil War was over. The good guys had lost. What else was there to say?

And again:

He arrived at the Schlesinger Bahnhof with twenty minutes to spare. The train was already sheltering under the wrought-iron canopy, and he walked down the platform in search of his carriage and seat. As he leaned out the window to watch a train steam in from the east a paper boy thrust an afternoon edition under his nose. The word Barcelona was again prominent, but this time he handed over the pfennigs. As his train gathered speed through Berlin’’s industrial suburbs he read the article from start to finish, in all its sad and predictable detail.  

Three years of sacrifice, all for nothing. Three years of towns won, towns lost. Russell had registered the names, but resisted further knowledge. It was too painful. Thousands of young men and women had gone to fight fascism in Spain, just as thousands had gone, like him, to fight for communism twenty years earlier. According to Marx, history repeated itself first as tragedy and then as farce. But no one was laughing. Except perhaps Stalin. 

Russell supposed he should be glad that Spain would soon be at peace, but even that was beyond him. 

There are archetypes for Russell. They are more likely found in Graham Greene than in le Carré — Rollo Martins in The Third Man and Alden Pyle in The Quiet American come to Malcolm’s mind.

By any considerations and comparisons, a good read.

Now, two years later, on to the Stettin Station.

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Filed under David Downing, Graham Greene, History, John le Carré, Philip Kerr, reading

A quacking follow-up

MV5BNTQ2NjUyNTE4M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMTc0ODY5._V1_SY317_CR7,0,214,317_It’s a small coincidence; but Malcolm welcomed it. And it wasn’t any Miliband Marxism that prompted it.

There he was, with that bit from  the New York Daily News, as in the previous post:

The government of the United States of America is closed for business today, courtesy of the Republican Party. It’s a national embarrassment, like a scene from the Marx Brothers’ classic 1933 satire “Duck Soup,” only without the anarchic humor.

The coincidence was that, only a couple of hours before, Malcolm had been deep into David Downing’s thriller, Zoo Station. The good news is there are four more in the series, with a fifth due in the Spring.


Look alikes

What made Malcolm add it to his book bundle in the York branch of Waterstones was the chutzpah of dressing up the paperback (yes, this is probably specific to the UK edition) to look as close as possible to Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther sequence (though, again, this applies to the UK editions).

By the same token Alan Furst’s novels are marketed in a somewhat similar, moody vein.


That’s not to be wondered at: they are all set in the same WW2 time-scale, and are related in theme. Mist and snow seem common to the cover-artist’s brief and concept.

We may return to this need for memes in book covers, should Malcolm feel the urge.

Anyway, all, and Malcolm can testify to this, are good cracking stuff.

Zoo Station

The conceit is that the central character, John Russell, is a case-hardened no-longer-young, no-longer-committed member of the CP, an Anglo-American (carrying a British passport) jobbing journalist in Berlin as 1939 starts.

Within the opening chapters he is in the pay of the Russians, and reporting back to the Gestapo and the British Secret Service on this contact.

At this point in the book, he is in Cracow, expecting to make contact with his Russian “controller”, and ostensibly researching an article for the Nazi press on the lives and attitudes of Germany’s neighbours.

Then comes this:

As they drove north through the Jewish quarter Russell noticed the Marx Brothers adorning a cinema on Starowislna Street. The name of the film was in Polish, but his driver’s English failed him. He asked again at the Hotel Francuski reception, and received a confident answer from a young man in  avery shiny suit. The film, which had only just opened, was called Broth of the Bird.

We were there on page 128 (of the paperback edition). Later that evening, to pass time, Russell is back at the cinema:

It was seven by the time he woke, and he felt hungry again. A new receptionist recommended a restaurant on Starowislna Street, which turned out to be only a few doors from the cinema showing the Marx Brothers movie. It was too good an invitation to miss. After partaking of a wonderful wienerschnitzel —— at least Cracow had something to thank the Hapsburg Empire for— — he joined the shivering queue for the evening showing.  

Inside the cinema it was hot, noisy, and packed. Surveying the audience before the lights went down, Russell guessed that at least half of the people there were Jewish. He felt cheered by the fact that this could still seem normal, even in a country as prone to anti-Semitism as Poland…

The newsreel was in Polish, but Russell got the gist. The first item featured a visit to Warsaw by the Hungarian Foreign Minister, and no doubt claimed that he and Colonel Beck had discussed matters of mutual importance, without spelling out what everyone knew these were— choosing their cuts of Czechoslovakia once the Germans had delivered the body. The second item concerned Danzig, with much piling of sandbags round the Polish Post Office. The third, more entertainingly, featured a man in New York walking a tightrope between skyscrapers.

The movie proved a surreal experience in more ways than one. Since it was subtitled in Polish, the audience felt little need to keep quiet, and Russell had some trouble catching all the wisecracks. And as the subtitling ran a few seconds behind the visuals, he often found himself laughing ahead of everyone else, like some eccentric cackle.

None of it mattered, though. He’d loved the Marx Brothers since seeing Animal Crackers during the last days of the Weimar Republic, before Jewish humor followed Jewish music and Jewish physics into exile. By the time “Broth of the Bird” was half an hour old he was literally aching with laughter. The film’s subject-matter—the approach of an utterly ridiculous war between two Ruritanian countries— was fraught with contemporary relevance, but any dark undertone was utterly overwhelmed by the swirling tide of joyous anarchy. If you wanted something real to worry about, there were cracker crumbs in the bed with a woman expected. The only sane response to rampant patriotism was: “’Take a card!”’ As the audience streamed out of the cinema, at least half the faces seemed streaked with tears of laughter.  

We arrive at page 133 before Broth of the Bird transmogrifies properly back into Duck Soup, as a story-teller confidently plays with the reader, to the benefit of both parties.

Notice, too, that both the New York Daily News and Downing identify the “anarchic humour” and “joyous anarchy” that is the belly-laugh lurking not too far beneath the crust of any political pie, however stodgy.

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Filed under Amazon, David Downing, Ed Miliband, films, History, nationalism, New York City, Philip Kerr, reading, World War 2