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Books Author Philip Kerr set his detective stories in the Nazi era

Philip Kerr is pictured on Jan. 11, 2012 in Paris, France. The Scottish-born writer died on March 23, 2018 at 62.

Ulf Andersen/GETTY IMAGES

Philip Kerr, a Scottish-born writer whose popular novels feature a Nazi-era detective named Bernie Gunther, whose hard-boiled style made him literary kin to Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s classic private eye, died on March 23 in London. He was 62.

The cause was bladder cancer, according to his publisher, G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

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Through 13 novels, including Greeks Bearing Gifts, which was published last week, Mr. Kerr drew Gunther as a savvy and cynical Berlin criminal police investigator who hates Hitler and quits his job when the Nazis take over. He becomes a private detective, but is then pressed into gumshoe jobs for the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and Reinhard Heydrich, a principal architect of the Final Solution.

Gunther is “one of crime fiction’s most satisfying and unlikely survivors: the good cop in the belly of the beast,” Jane Kramer, The New Yorker’s longtime European correspondent, wrote last year.

Some of the novels bring Gunther into postwar intrigues in Argentina, Cuba, France, Greece and other countries.

Mr. Kerr wrote fantasy novels for children (the Children of the Lamp series, under the name P.B. Kerr), a mystery novel involving Sir Isaac Newton and thrillers set in the world of soccer. But he was most successful at the Gunther series, which began with March Violets in 1989.

After two follow-ups, Mr. Kerr set Gunther aside for 15 years, but as he went on tour to promote his non-Gunther books in the intervening years, fans asked him when he would return to his sardonic, Goethe-quoting detective.

“I’d better write another so people would stop asking,” he told radio host Leonard Lopate of WNYC in 2015.

They kept coming with regularity. In 2006, Mr. Kerr resurrected Gunther in The One From the Other, a postwar story about the search for a Nazi war criminal. At his death, he left behind the manuscript for another Gunther novel, Metropolis, which explores the character’s life during the Weimar Republic.

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“It’s Bernie at the start,” Marian Wood, Mr. Kerr’s long-time editor, said of the book in a telephone interview. “It’s his origin story.”

Ms. Wood, vice-president and publisher of Marian Wood Books, an imprint of Putnam Books, added: “He’s fought in World War I, he’s joined the police force, he was a beat cop brought into vice, and then he was brought into the Berlin criminal murder squad.”

Metropolis will be published later this year or next, she said.

When Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess entered a Berlin hotel in If the Dead Rise Not (2009), Mr. Kerr’s sharp eye for detail revealed itself in Gunther’s vivid narration.

“He was medium in height; slim with dark, wavy hair; a Transylvania brow; werewolf eyes, and a razor-thin mouth,” Mr. Kerr wrote, adding, “With his eager air, he reminded me of an Alsatian dog let off the leash by his Austrian master to lick the hand of the man from the American Olympic Committee. As it happened there was a hand that I had to go and lick myself. A hand that belonged to a man in the Gestapo.”

Philip Ballantyne Kerr was born in Edinburgh on Feb. 22, 1956. His father, William, was an engineer, and his mother, the former Ann Brodie, was a secretary. He began writing as a youngster and was intrigued by books that his religious parents kept from him in a locked closet. At 11 or 12, while his parents were out, he found the key and discovered D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which, for a time, was widely banned for obscenity.

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Inspired to create a racy story of his own, the young Kerr wrote The Duchess and the Daisies and rented the manuscript to schoolmates. But when his father learned about Daisies, he punished Philip by forcing him to read it to his mother.

“She fled the room after a couple of sentences, thank God,” Mr. Kerr told the British newspaper The Telegraph in 2012, “but it gave me quite an insight into the power of words.”

His family moved to the Midlands in England when he was a teenager, and he graduated from Birmingham University with a bachelor’s degree in law; he went on to receive a master’s in jurisprudence there. But rather than pursue a legal career, he worked as an advertising copywriter at the Saatchi & Saatchi agency in London.

Mr. Kerr traveled to Berlin regularly, curious about the influence of German Romanticism on the country’s legal philosophy. Initially, he wanted to write about the social and philosophical underpinnings of Nazism. Instead, he started writing the Gunther novels.

He would, in time, wonder what Chandler would have done with Marlowe – the indelible star of novels such as The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely – if his fictional locale had been Berlin, not Los Angeles.

“What kind of Marlowe would we have had?” Mr. Kerr said in an interview in 2011 with The Morning News, a webzine. “It tickled me a little bit to try and inhabit that same noir period.”

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By placing the sardonic Gunther in Hitler’s Germany, Mr. Kerr found fertile turf for years of complex storytelling. Nazis, he said, were far worse than any “dodgy” district attorney or “corrupt” mayor Marlowe had encountered.

Mr. Kerr leaves his wife, Jane Thynne, who is also a novelist; a daughter, Naomi Kerr; two sons, William and Charlie; and a sister, Caroline Kerr.

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