Friday, September 28, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Book: Philip Kerr's A PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATION


BOOKS TO DIE FOR, which I reviewed a week ago, will be available in the United States October 2nd.  According to co-editor Declan Burke's website, (link), there will be an American launch of the book at Bouchercon in Cleveland (link).  Mysteries, thrillers, and Halloween--always among my favorite things in October.

This week's selection for Forgotten Book Friday is Philip Kerr's A Philosophical Investigation (which was nicely reviewed by Paul Johnston in Books to Die For).  It was Kerr's fourth novel, an SF crime thriller bristling with ideas, just bristling.

It was ahead of its time, written some thirty years ago and first published in 1992.  It is set in 2013, and it predicts many things that have come to pass or soon will.  It is witty and stylish and Kerr's killer will take you by surprise with his intelligence and the ideas at play--of gender politics, moral ambiguity, technology, and the power struggles inherent in corporate bureaucracy.

There are literary allusions aplenty, to George Orwell and T. S. Eliot and many others, but you needn't have read any of them in order to enjoy this tour de force.  It's a shame that this novel did not get produced by Hollywood back in the 1990s.  It could have been bigger than Blade Runner.

The prolific Kerr is now famous for his international best-selling series involving Chandleresque Bernie Gunther, set against the backdrop of Nazi Germany and the post-Nazi world.

Although a reclusive kind of a guy, Kerr has several good interviews across the web.  Start with J. Kingston Pierce's interview here.  Then go to the Crime Scraps five-part interview beginning here.  Marissa Chen asks him about his desert island books here.  Robert Birnbaum has a marvelous casual conversation with Kerr here.   

He can be an entertaining interview, as shown by these composite excerpts from above linked websites:

Kerr:  "My favorite novel was and always has been 1984. But it’s hard to see this has anything to do with what I do now.

[A Philosophical Investigation] was the best crime novel I’ve ever written and was probably way ahead of its time. As someone who had read philosophy as a post-graduate, I wanted to deal with the crime novel from a philosophical POV. I wanted to understand the reading public’s obsession with crime-writing and murder. I also wanted to pay homage to [George] Orwell, I guess, by inhabiting similar territory for a while. . .

Q: Best book about trips or journeys.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence; Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Q: Which book are you mostly likely to pick as your ultimate survival manual?

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchins

Q: Which author would you most like to go on a vacation with, and what would you be doing?

I should like to go on vacation with J.K. Rowling. We would be spending her money, of course...

Q: If there was one book you had to burn for firewood, which would it be?
The Bible.

Q: Which paragraph or line from a novel would you choose for your final 'message in a bottle'?

Wendy,' Peter Pan continued in a voice that no woman has ever yet been able to resist, 'Wendy, one girl is more use than twenty boys.'" [J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan]

Gibbon had an ironic sense of humor: he giveth in the text and taketh away in the footnotes.
 Q: If you could only take one book onto a desert island which would it be?
Kerr:  Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I like Gibbon. He hated Christians for their religious intolerance, you know. I am somewhat to the left of Julian the Apostate here. We should have a pantheon where all gods are welcome, but monotheism is forbidden on pain of death. I like the Romana. We should get back to throwing a few people to the lions I think. And not just Christians. Law and Order Roman style in Britannicus for ten years would suit very well. . .
[Kerr's father died in 1978] "He was 46. Religion didn’t do him any favors. God wasn’t listening to him. He doesn’t listen to me, either. But then I don’t listen to him. We’re not on speaking terms. Too much water under the bridge, I suppose. Anyway, who wants to go to Heaven when all the bad girls are in Hell?"

Q: Field Gray is less a novel about murders and their solving, and more about Bernie Gunther's association with the Third Reich's military force, the Waffen-SS. Were you merely hoping to shake up the Gunther series by exploring some of the atrocities Gunther has committed, or had you a more complicated agenda?

A:  I like shaking up the series every time. I don't like writing the same book again and again. I believe that it's important to take risks, and to that end I like to challenge people's expectations. I don't know how long I can keep re-inventing things though. And the minute I think I am repeating myself--which, after all, is the basis of so much modern publishing--I will drop Bernie and try something different. However, I did have an agenda with Field Gray, and it is complicated. I wanted to make some modern political points as well as some historical ones. I will leave readers to work out what these might be. That's the fun of reading after all.

Q: We see Gunther coming to terms here with the choices and mistakes he's made in life, about his collusion with a corrupt society. But is he a better man for understanding his mistakes, or just a more cynical one for being OK with having made them?

A: I think any man is a better man for understanding his mistakes. For example, I think I am a better writer for having written several duds along the way. Failure is helpful and instructive. And, personally, I wouldn't be without the odd failure to stand in the back of my chariot and remind me that I am but mortal, so to speak. The point of the character is that he is an Everyman figure designed to highlight the moral dilemmas that might have confronted any one of us in the situation he finds himself in, which is of his country, run by a bunch of racist gangsters. That's the question I am always asking myself in these books. What would I have done?"

I write within the tradition of the European political novel, yes. That's what the novels are about. Politics and morals. It's disingenuous of me, of course, to say they're not crime novels when they are that, too. But I'm aiming a little higher here. I'm ambitious to do more, that's all. I think it's always fascinating to write about a boring little murder when there's mass murder being planned or executed in the wings. Besides, I don't care for being pigeonholed at all. All I mean is for the crime novel to achieve something more than just a conventional solution to a grubby crime. I'm not turning my nose up at crime. I just want to do more with it than just have some poor woman sliced open on an autopsy table.

Sadly I am not at all sure that anyone is going to be read in fifty years time except by a small elite. Who would have thought that Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 might come true for the reason that nobody is going to be interested in buying a book? People want to watch crap on TV- The Thick Factor and Strictly Come Fucking Dumb. The book's days are numbered I fear.
We are moving into an era of great stupidity and ignorance. I don't read much fiction at all, I'm afraid.
Q: Who are your five favorite living writers and why?

I'm not sure I can think of five. John Le Carre is our best living writer in my opinion. The Spy who Came in from the Cold is perhaps the defining novel of the Cold War. But he seems to have reinvented himself rather successfully as a writer of ethical thrillers. I am very fond of Howard Jacobson's novels: he's Britain's answer to Philip Roth, but much much funnier. William Boyd, I like. My wife Jane Thynne is a fine writer. Irvine Welsh is very funny. Well there you are. I managed to get five after all. . ."
Kerr's humorous allusions are both sly and dead serious.  For instance, he says he wants "the crime novel to achieve something more than just a conventional solution to a grubby crime. I'm not turning my nose up at crime.  I just want to do more with it than just have some poor woman sliced open on an autopsy table."

A reference to whodunits in general but more tellingly to the many NCIS and Bones clones?  Well, certainly.  It  also seems a sly turnabout reference to T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" which begins "Let us go, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table."

Listen.  Kerr's A Philosophical Investigation opens with the graphic autopsy of a woman named Mary Woolnoth, that name famous because St. Mary Woolnoth is an Anglican church in the City of London, designed by legendary Nicholas Hawksmoor.  T. S. Eliot refers to the church in The Waste Land.

Near the end of the first chapter, we get this:  "No murder was ever quite as brutal as what took place on the autopsy slab.  A clear cut, from chin to pelvis, the skeleton and the organs hauled out of the flesh, like a suitcase ransacked by customs at the airport."
Such Chandleresque similies abound in Philip Kerr's style.  They provide a lot of the dark humor in serious situations.  The novel's epigraphs are from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and from T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

An overlooked gem.
The links to the other Friday's Forgotten Books, by many other authors and bloggers, are at Todd Mason's site at this link.

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