Saturday, December 18, 2010

Dark Streets

A friend recently passed on to me a big thick paperback, a trilogy of novels called collectively Berlin Noir. The book is a 1993 Penguin paperback that includes March Violets (1989), The Pale Criminal (1990) and A German Requiem (1991). Long a fan of hard-edged mystery stories in the noir style, this collection was quick to grab my interest. Not my usual practice to write about a book before I’ve finished reading it through to the end, but I am making an exception this time because my comments will stay pretty much with the book’s setting.

What exactly is noir fiction? It describes a style that is lean and direct with a fair serving of gritty realism, a further development of the hardboiled crime story made popular by Dashiel Hammett and refined by Raymond Chandler. Noir fiction took its name from “film noir,” dark dramas of hardboiled stories. Jim Thompson is a paramount name in noir, but what many have failed to notice is that Patricia Highsmith was the ultimate of noir writers. Though Raymond Chandler may be more accurately described as a writer of hardboiled fiction, the darkness of his Los Angeles streets and the characters who inhabit them is very definitely a noir characteristic.

The Chandler descriptions of Los Angeles make up the element that many of his readers look for in each of his books. The city becomes a character as much alive as any of his human characters. And it is that point that connects him to Philip Kerr and his trilogy, Berlin Noir. In March Violets, the Kerr book I am now reading, the city of Berlin, circa 1936 is recreated so finely, and with such completeness that it makes me believe the writer must have had photographs and maps tacked up all around his writing desk. He writes of dark, wet streets and you feel that darkness and wetness as though you were standing there on Alexanderplatz in east Berlin looking up through lamplit drizzle at Berolina Haus and Alexander Haus. Kerr does for Berlin what Chandler does for Los Angeles. Here is Kerr in an interview:

‘Yes, I tried to make Berlin a character in the same way that Los Angeles is a character in Chandler, which is probably where people get the idea that I copied Chandler. I do admire his descriptions of places and have always used them as an example of excellence that I set myself. It seems to me that a sense of place is essential in all good fiction. I like to think of myself as being rather similar to a painter in that I describe pictures of places.’

Kerr is so successful in his descriptions of Berlin 1936 that holding the book open in my hands I almost feel as though I’m wearing a trench coat, a wide brimmed hat, cheap leather shoes, with a Luger stuffed in my pocket. Only halfway through March Violets, I am reluctant to say more about the book. But for those readers with a special penchant for noir, and especially pre-World War II Berlin, Philip Kerr and Berlin Noir is the ticket.

1 comment:

  1. Atmosphere, the sense of place, is so important in all types of fiction. Good characters must be firmly rooted in a concrete setting. Then a simple description like this, from Haruf's EVENTIDE, takes flight: "A car drove by, its exhaust as white and ragged as wood smoke, before the wind snatched it away."


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America