Philip Kerr Analysis


Philip Kerr enjoyed a stellar literary debut. March Violets, the first of his Bernie Gunther novels, appeared in 1989 to wide critical appreciation. By the time the third novel in the series was published two years later, Kerr’s reputation was established. As eminent a literary voice as Salman Rushdie hailed him as brilliantly innovative, and in 1993 the literary review Granta named Kerr among the top twenty living British authors. His subsequent techno-thrillers attracted further admirers: He was called the Michael Crichton of the 1990’s. His A Philosophical Investigation (1992), Gridiron (1995), and The Second Angel (1998) are considered benchmarks for crossover genre fiction.

Kerr became noted for two qualities: the detailed realism of his historical settings and the intricacy of his plot-driven novels and their intellectual tenor. The novels typically contain long discussions of philosophy, science, and technology, all fundamental to the plots. Although many reviewers find his depictions of historical characters (such as Isaac Newton, Adolf Hitler, and Franklin D. Roosevelt) to be believable, others complain that his emphasis on story in preference to characterization results in stereotyping and oversimplification. Moreover, Kerr received the unwelcome distinction of a Bad Sex Award, an annual antitribute from Britain’s Literary Review for a purple sex scene in an otherwise good novel. Some critics complain of his gruesome violence and gloomy tone. The majority, however, find that among genre writers, Kerr produces novels that most resemble literary fiction.


Diemert, Brian. “’How Do You Describe the Indescribable?’ Representing History in Detective Fiction: The Case of Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir Trilogy.” Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture 35, no. 2 (Summer, 2002): 331-353. Diemert asks if genre fiction like Kerr’s can adequately characterize a great historical catastrophe, such as the Holocaust and Hitler’s Germany. Although praising Kerr’s recreation of the Nazi era in the Berlin Noir trilogy, he argues that Kerr’s portrayals of historical figures are too ambiguous and the hard-boiled subgenre is too sympathetic to fascism to succeed.

Glover, David. “The Thriller.” In Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction, edited by Martin Priestman. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Glover provides a concise, readable discussion of the thriller as a genre: its definition, themes, and types of characters. Sheds light on Kerr’s writings.

Horsely, Lee. The Noir Thriller. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Horsely places the Bernie Gunther novels in the context of the hard-boiled detective subgenre but emphasizes that Kerr is among the British writers who use it as the occasion for exploring larger historical themes.

Leonard, John. “Blood on the Tracts.” The Nation 256, no. 22 (June, 1993): 788-800. An arch but mostly laudatory reading of Kerr’s A Philosophical Inquiry as a satire of sociobiology and of the modern preference for empiricism over reason.

Scaggs, John. “Missing Persons and Multicultural Identity: The Case of Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir.” In Race and Religion in the Postcolonial Detective Story, edited by Julie H. Kim. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2005. Scaggs studies Kerr’s treatment of national and ethnic identity, including that of Jews, in Nazi-era Germany during the aftermath of World War II.