I was shocked at the sudden news last night that Philip Kerr died. I did not know him well but I knew him some and, more to the point, I simply liked him. I guess I kind of assumed we’d run into each other again sooner or later and catch up and now, sadly, I know we never will.
Back in 2011 I was living back in London, having spent five years away. It was winter, I was in a hastily rented apartment that was freezing cold, and the whole weight of how things have changed in my absence hit me. The world I came back to wasn’t the one I’d left. It was poorer, darker, and full of new nationalist and right-wing forces right out of history, suddenly stirring up again.
Naturally, I went to the library to catch up on the the new Bernie Gunther novels I’d missed. I think it was in one of the Cuban ones that Kerr has a throwaway line about how Adolf Hitler could have become a private detective. Later that night, I had the blinding realisation that if anyone could pull something as ridiculous and offensive as that off, it might just be me… and then I spent the next couple of years trying very hard not to write that novel.
However, at some point I finished The Violent Century and nothing else seemed to work and so one night I sat down and wrote the first sentence of what would become A Man Lies Dreaming, in which a hardboiled Hitler roams the streets of 1939 London, while a British fascist runs for Prime Minister on a platform of anti-immigration…
I had a two book deal with Hodder at the time and, thankfully, they accepted the novel for publication in late 2014. Around that time, I got an invitation to a small German convention in Leipzig, and to my delight I discovered one of the other guests was none other than Philip Kerr.
We met. I got to tell him how his book inspired mine. We kind of hit it off. He was funny, candid (I can’t repeat most of the stuff he told me), full of ridiculous yet no-doubt true stories – the time he was a guest of the KGB and they made him an honorary colonel; the time a NATO general sent an honour guard and a helicopter to escort him to some gig; the time he worked with De Niro… (“Did I mention that already?” – “You did, but I think that’s fair enough.”)
The last day of the convention we all had dinner at the Aurebachs wine cellar, where Goethe wrote Faust. We missed most of our dinner as we were taken on a tour of the cellar and the giant wine barrel that Faust was said to have ridden on. I was strangely gratified when the whole visit ended up as a paragraph in The Lady of Zagreb where Bernie’s having a dream:
I once visited the famous Aurebachs Keller in Leipzig where [Goethe] spent most of his student years drinking wine, and felt an affinity with the man that I’ve felt for no other. Then again, it might just have been all those pictures on the wooden walls of Faust drinking with Mephistopheles. I’ve often felt an affinity with him, too. […] for a moment I was drinking in the medieval cellar’s subterranean depths; then I was astride a wine barrel as big as a bull and riding out of the door and up into the marketplace…
Me and Philip Kerr, a little mellow after a few glasses of German wine, Leipzig 2014.
Back in London, I sent him a copy of my book. Phil was kind enough to blurb it. He came to my launch event at Hatchards, which he approved of (“It’s where I hold all my launch events”, he said), then he ran off to watch the football with an unnamed Russian billionaire. It was the sort of thing he did.
The last time I saw him we had lunch in Wimbledon, near where he lived. He wanted me to work on a book with him, which I couldn’t do and now kind of wish I did…
Then life got in the way and from time to time I thought of dropping him a line and then didn’t. I wish I did that too, now. But he was so young! And full of energy, and he could take out his laptop anywhere and any time and just start writing. At least I have a new Bernie Gunther book to read, still…
I’m gutted. It’s just – I liked the guy.
During one of our chats, Phil mentioned an idea that was so ridiculous, he said I was more than welcome to have it. It was a bit out there even for me, though it’s stuck in my mind ever since and, well, now Phil’s not around maybe I should try to write it anyway, in his memory. I think he would have laughed if I ever did do it.
He’s gone, which is hard to believe. At least the new Bernie Gunther novel, Greeks Bearing Gifts, is just about to come out, and Frederick the Great Detektive sounds amazing, too. Phil’s going to be around for a while.
And besides, I refuse to believe he’s really gone. I prefer to think he just did what Bernie did – he changed his name and got a new identity and now he’s laughing at all of us somewhere in South America, where he is no doubt still getting into trouble.
I think I’ll stick with that version, for a while at least.