Philip Kerr remarked in the afterword to one of his novels that thrillers and mysteries are merely children’s books for adults in that they are fantasy entertainment. Nevertheless, his novels treat a variety of momentous themes, frequently delve into the corruption and conflicts of famous historical eras, and ponder the nature of evil in the human psyche, often through characterizations of historical luminaries. Even if they are fantasies, his novels still impel readers to ponder fundamental questions about human behavior.
Several of Kerr’s novels examine international politics and society. Hitler’s Peace: A Novel of the Second World War (2005) concerns secret negotiations among Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Franklin D. Roosevelt in Teheran in 1943 and the factions in each nation that tried to ruin the meeting. A German Requiem (1991), the third Bernie Gunther novel, unfolds in post-World War II Vienna, where the Soviets, French, British, and Americans ostensibly coadminister the city but in fact devote themselves to spying on each other, even supporting organizations made up of former Nazi leaders if they will aid them; the international presence has less to do with reconstruction of Germany than with the looming conflict between the communist Soviet Union and the democratic West. In Esau (1996), events unfold against the background of an escalating conflict between India and Pakistan, thus raising another of Kerr’s major international themes: the danger of technology (in this case, nuclear weapons) both to civilization and to the environment. A third international theme is anti-Semitism. Persecution of Jews forms a pervasive undercurrent to the first three Bernie Gunther novels and is the major motivation for events in the fourth. Kerr demonstrates that anti-Semitism not only harms those persecuted but also causes a moral degeneracy in the persecutors that haunts them long after World War II. A fourth international theme concerns the growing disparity between a small privileged class of the wealthy and a large underprivileged class. In The Second Angel (1998), a techno-thriller set in 2069, this gap is given symbolic force. Humanity is split into two classes, those who are infected with a slow-acting virus that is uniformly fatal and those who are free of infection. The only way to cure the disease is through complete replacement of diseased blood with healthy blood, and accordingly pure blood becomes the most valued commodity in society, jealously guarded by the healthy from the diseased.
Kerr also addresses the unforeseen pernicious effects of technology within a society. In Gridiron, for instance, arrogant developers build a skyscraper run by a single advanced computer. It turns vicious, destroying the developers and their clients. In A Philosophical Investigation, genetic screening and sophisticated computing allow England to identify potential serial killers. The system enables authorities to track and offer preventive treatments to these proto-murderers, but any technological system, however well intended, can be compromised and misused, Kerr implies. One of the proto-murderers hacks into the computer system to erase his own file and then identify all others like him. He then sets out to murder them. The overarching irony is that a preventive program...
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