Friday, February 02, 2007

Pulp Fiction: The Good, The Bad and Philip Kerr

There's a certain type of pulp fiction I try to avoid. It's easy to recognize because it's driven by a common impulse. I'm talking about the male adolescent impulse, the sort that prompts a scrotty kid to stand up at the family dinner table, wave his arms and squawk, "You just don't get it, do you?" It's typically relentless, bordering on tedious. The best of it is playfully cruel (Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club comes to mind, as does Charles Bukowski's work). The worst of it dreary and tawdry, and leaves me feeling like I've spent the night sleeping in newspaper.

The British seem to excel at this form of pulp, particularly when it comes to science fiction: J.G. Ballard can be counted on to deliver the bad news in a droning monotone, as can his protege Richard Morgan. Trumping them both in the "It's Worse Than You Can Possibly Imagine, But Let Me Help You Try" department is Martin Amis, a prodigiously gifted writer whose body of work studiously resembles a Pink Floyd concert, complete with audience-alienating pyrotechnics. If you've got a little optimism to spare, go ahead and give their books a read. But if you're pressed for time, just pop Get Carter — the original, starring Michael Caine — into your DVD player, and give it a spin. Feel free to light a scented candle and sip a little chamomile tea while watching; I guarantee that by movie's end you'll be in the shower, trying to shampoo the smell of beer, cigarette smoke and greasy fish & chips from your hair.

I'm guessing that this genre has a misery-loves-company appeal similar to VampireFreaks. Well, I get lonely too — just not that lonely. I greatly dislike listening to (or reading) someone who sneers while artfully making a target of the reader. I generally prefer the morality tales of George Pelecanos and James Lee Burke. And once in a while I savor the experience of entering a world where something truly valuable is at stake, and likely to be torn away from my hero's bloody fingers.

Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir is one of the best examples of this latter camp, with March Violets counting as the best of those books. Kerr's gumshoe, Bernie Gunther, begins the series as a world-weary ex-cop. He fought at the Turkish Front during the Great War, and he walks around drinking too much and making snide wisecracks, confident he's seen the worst humanity has to offer. Of course he hasn't: whatever he was exposed to as a German soldier was just a warm-up to the next wave of hateful brutality, which is just beginning to sweep over the citizens of Berlin.

Bernie takes a case that leads to the core of Germany's organized crime. Just as he thinks he's getting close to solving it, everything spins apart. He witnesses a shocking rape, then a murder. Then he's arrested, and shunted into a concentration camp. He's finally granted the McGuffin he's been chasing, through the dumbest circumstantial luck. By book's end, he's in shock. The moral code he'd cynically cobbled together is worthless in this brutal Neue Weltordnung. Worse than that, the girl he fell for has disappeared, leaving him almost certain of her fate.

Kerr lets Bernie narrate the events in clipped, recognizably German cadences. He's a smart-mouth and a bit of an indiscriminate bully. As the series progresses, Bernie becomes more shrewd about when and where he throws his weight around. He compromises and bides his time, waiting for the best circumstances in which to deliver his little hammer-blows of justice. He is under no illusions when he considers what he is accomplishing; the reader is left with a clear impression that Bernie giving voice to what he's done serves justice better than any of his kills do.

Kerr's other work varies — he's been called the British Michael Crichton (a risible comparison, but he is a fast writer). I'm ambivalent about most of it. The novels are all fastidiously structured, and Kerr has become increasingly conscious about delivering emotional payoff. But clearly Bernie Gunther is a character with deep appeal, not just to readers but to the author as well: he's resurfaced again, 15 years after the last Berlin novel. My reading docket overflows, but as the cruelest month approaches, I believe I may just nudge The One From The Other toward the top.


tpr said...

"And once in a while I savor the experience of entering a world where something valuable is at stake, and likely to be torn away from my bloody fingers."

Ahah, so you ARE a member of the NRA! BTW, this self-righteous teen you speak of wouldn't happen to resemble anyone you might have grown up with would he? Also, are you sure the original Get Carter is any better than the new "old men on steroids" version?

DarkoV said...

Can't agree with you more re. your commentary on J.G.Ballard. I read, well, tried to read his Crash (which resulted in this Creepola Special Cronenberg Crash) which isn't the same as this Crash.

It was tough miserable slogging. Never made it to the end because the end seemed to be happening every few pages. A Möbius strip of endings. Felt like a perpetual drive on a road with lamp posts whose lights were shattered. You know, there once was light but now a perpetual darkness has set in, with physical reminders that there once was light. And the characters' repartees were miserable and devoid of any memorable bon (or mal) mots.
I'll have to check out the local library for the Phillip Kerr book you mentioned. Sounds a bit like this Graham Greene classic, only a bit less zither-y.

DarkoV said...

Oh, Yeah.
Have to disagree with you on Get Carter. I loved the movie! Sense of fine coal dust in the air, seemingly coming through the tv and settling on me. And that last shot (literally) is fabulous. There you see a pinprick of a person vertically. And then, with loud sounds all about you, you see that pinprick of a person horizontally. Not a clue in the world.

Love it!

Whisky Prajer said...

Several things: (1) you got me as I was making changes to my posting - now we're talking about fictional heroes, and not *me*. So, no NRA, sorry. (2) There's a catch-phrase our family trots out whenever something weird and unfortunate happens in this town: "It was probably a teenager." I'm not basing my observation on any one teen-ager - I'm basing it on them all. (3) I am certainly not saying the original Get Carter is better than the Stallone/Rourke ham-fest. In fact, I've watched the latter more than once, just because it's so deliriously smarmy.

Whisky Prajer said...

DV - the original certainly sticks to (and between) the ribs. Mind you, I've only watched it once and can't say that I'm keen on repeating the experience.

F.C. Bearded said...

I'm with Darko on "Get Carter" - first watched it late at night as a youth; so not your typical michael Caine.

I'm almost with you on the authors you mentioned - though I never thought of Ballard or Amis as "pulp". But despite all the "Money"s and the claptrap, Amis' "London Fields" is amongst my favorite novels.

I can't remember if I've read Kerr - though your description is ringing a canon in the bellfry. I think I might have, but then again, probably not. Going to have to visit the bloody bookstore and find out, now, thank-you very bloody much.

Scott said...


You've mentioned Philip Kerr's Berlin books before and I was intrigued. Now, your column insists on it and my 'to read' pile is already too large!

waaaaaaaa :)