Philip Kerr’s “Metropolis” For Once, A Necessary Prequel

Philip Kerr’s “Metropolis”: For Once, A Necessary Prequel

Crafting the historical mystery is a more delicate operation than some readers may assume. If the past environs are rendered poorly, the effect is akin to walking through the synthetic theme parks of HBO’s “Westworld”: The elements may be correct, down to the historically-correct costumes and weapons, but the overall effect is studiously artificial.

When I heard that Kerr had written a “prequel” to his Gunther mysteries, I felt a bit of trepidation.

No, the trick is to make the past seem immediate, vital, even familiar. That’s always been Philip Kerr’s strength in his “Berlin Noir” mysteries, in which detective Bernie Gunther prowls the underbelly of Nazi Germany, puzzling out the mysteries of the dead.

Not only is Kerr’s eye for detail and character unparalleled; he balances mystery and history perfectly, like a blade in a skilled knife-fighter’s hand.

When I heard that Kerr had written a “prequel” to his Gunther mysteries, I felt a bit of trepidation. In the hands of most mystery writers, the “prequel” suggests that the bottom of the proverbial barrel has been hit and scraped; unable to move their main character forward, they dig into the past for new material. Visiting the character’s early years often has the unfortunate side-effect of draining all suspense; we already know who lives or dies, if we’ve followed the series to that point—the only thing left is to see how characters arrived at their older selves.

With all that in mind, I’m pleased to report that Kerr’s prequel, “Metropolis,” neatly sidesteps those issues. Following Gunther on his first day on the homicide beat, it is at once a taut thriller and an interesting exploration of 1920s Berlin. The city, then at its arguably most decadent moment, is a seedy backdrop for Gunther as he learns his craft. A serial killer is slipping through the night, breaking prostitutes’ necks before scalping them; it’s a hell of a first case.

The street-level violence, however, is overshadowed by the Nazism creeping into the edges of the story’s frame. We all know how this era of history went, eventually, and most readers will feel a little burst of fear as the book’s characters dismiss the Nazi movement as a bunch of clowns and jokers.

…if you’re looking for a historical thriller that’s deft with its history and its thrills, you couldn’t do better.

If you’ve read Kerr’s series, you know how Gunther is eventually swept up by historical events, and then left to deal with the wreckage; that adds an element of foreboding to this novel, and helps elevate it far above the usual “prequel” dreck.

Although this is Kerr’s last Gunther novel—he passed away last year, shortly after completing “Metropolis”—anyone new to the series would probably do well to start with it before moving onto the other books. Some have argued that the series becomes too formulaic, and that might be true (one’s tolerance for formula varies), but if you’re looking for a historical thriller that’s deft with its history and its thrills, you couldn’t do better.

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