This supposed fact may be met with melancholy (le Carré, Chandler) or with a dry-martini sort of irony. “One does see so much evil in a village,” Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s old-lady detective, exclaims, no doubt while making cucumber sandwiches for tea with the vicar. Both approaches are popular with readers. Le Carré is the most admired spy novelist of our time, while Christie was the best-selling novelist in the history of the novel, and it seems to me that a major reason is their calm in the face of crime. They tell us about this misbehavior that we so much like to hear about, and then they allow us, following them, to rise above it. One theory regarding the arrival of the so-called golden age of detective fiction in the years between the two world wars is that, in this period of terrible political unrest, detective novels, by locating guilt in one jealous husband or one legacy-hunting nephew, reassured people that the problem wasn’t structural. There wasn’t anything wrong with the world. There was just one bad apple, and, once located, it could be removed.
Philip Kerr offers no such comfort. His best-known novels are his Berlin Noir trilogy: “March Violets” (1989), “The Pale Criminal” (1990), and “A German Requiem” (1991). The first two are set in the nineteen-thirties, as Hitler is consolidating his power. The third takes place just after the Nazis have lost the war. In “A German Requiem,” Berlin is basically a pile of rubble, here and there leaking miasma from the decomposing bodies lying underneath. The only people able to earn a living are spies, black-marketers, and prostitutes. Bernie Gunther, the detective hero of the trilogy—and of nine subsequent Kerr novels—finds an old woman peeling fungus off a wall and eating it. “We don’t go hungry,” she says to Bernie. “The Lord provides.” Some days, Bernie and his wife, Kirsten, do go hungry, and Kirsten addresses this problem by making herself agreeable to American soldiers who have access to a PX. One night, after she gets off work, she takes a walk with an American captain, and Bernie follows them. They disappear into a bombed-out apartment building:
A cloud drifted across the moon, darkening the landscape, and I crept behind an enormous pile of scree, where I thought I might get a better view. When the cloud sailed on, and the moonlight shone undiminished through the bare rafters of the roof, I had a clear sight of them, silent now. For a moment they were a facsimile of innocence as she knelt before him while he laid his hands upon her head as if delivering holy benediction. I puzzled as to why Kirsten’s head should be rocking on her shoulders, but when he groaned my understanding of what was happening was as swift as the feeling of emptiness which accompanied it.