Raymond Chandler best defined heroism in a detective story (and by extension a Western or a spy story) when he wrote, “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.”
Chandler—like Elmore Leonard who died last August, like Andrew Klavan and George Pelecanos who write tough-minded novels based in America, and like Alex Dryden, William Ryan, and Martin Cruz Smith who do the same with Russia as their stage—knew that without mean streets a hero is common and incomplete. Streets didn’t get any meaner than those of Hitler’s Germany from 1933 to 1945, and spy or detective novels don’t get any tougher than those set at that time (and usually in that place) by three stellar authors: America’s Alan Furst, and Britain’s David Downing and Philip Kerr.
The three are different. The Furst of Mission to Paris, Dark Star, Blood of Victory, The Foreign Correspondent, The Spies of Warsaw, and Spies of the Balkans has a variety of central characters in his books, some more interesting than others, but he is always superb at creating an atmosphere that makes readers feel they’re standing in misty Casablanca by a club named Rick’s, waiting for exit visas to Portugal.
At the center of the Kerr novels I’ve read—Berlin Noir, The One from the Other, If the Dead Rise Not, Field Gray, Prague Fatale, A Man Without Breath—is German detective Bernie Gunther who makes compromises to survive and is not above prurient interests, but will still risk his life to rescue Jewish damsels and others in distress.
Prospective readers should be warned, though: Gunther’s mean streets include sex and bad language, and none of these books gild vice-filled reality.
My favorite character is David Downing’s protagonist, British journalist John Russell, who has a half-German son and a youthful Marxist past, so spymasters in London, Berlin, and Moscow all want to lure or force him into their service. Russell can be tempted: When Russians put a beautiful woman in his Moscow hotel bed, “[h]e stood there stupidly for what was probably only a couple of seconds, caught between bodily desire and every other conscious impulse.”
Then comes the man of honor’s resolution: “‘No,’ he said, turning his eyes in search of her clothes, and finding them neatly folded on the chair. He picked them up and passed them to her. ‘Thank you, but no.’ Her smile turned into a shrug. Two minutes later she was gone. Russell gazed out at the empty square, reliving the movement of her body in his mind’s eye. ‘You would have hated yourself in the morning,’ he muttered to himself.”
If such a passage bothers you, do not read Furst, Kerr, or Downing, whose John Russell books all have the names of Berlin train stations such as Zoo, Stettin, Potsdam, and Lehrter. But if you can take such a passage as one educating readers in what it means to bend without breaking, and if you are willing to put up with violence and occasional uncouthness, you may want to pick up one of those books—and you may find it hard to stop at just one.
From 1901 to 1905 The Netherlands had as prime minister a Christian theologian and journalist—and James Bratt’s Abraham Kuyper (Eerdman’s, 2013) gives us a detailed, scholarly look at the man of many talents who emphasized “sphere sovereignty” as an alternative to authoritarian government centralization. For a look at what underlies Middle Eastern authoritarianism, see Patrick Sookhdeo’s Understanding Islamic Theology (Isaac Publishing, 2013). For an exciting novelistic look into a possible American authoritarian future, see Kaleidocide (Thomas Dunne, 2013) by Dave Swavely, interviewed in our July 27 issue last year. —M.O.