Last week I went to the funeral of my dear friend Philip Kerr, who wrote more than 30 novels. Many of these – as we learnt from his agent, Caradoc King, in his splendid eulogy – were sold for “north of a million dollars”. Philip was just 62 when he died but left a legacy of books that explored the moral ambiguity of the 20th-century condition in a way that makes him comparable to Graham Greene.
Like Greene, Philip had an acute sense of good and evil. It was this moral lens that gave his novels their beauty, power and wit, especially in the case of his Bernie Gunther detective novels, which rival those of Raymond Chandler.
The series was set in Nazi Berlin, but the moral universe of the novels was born from Philip’s own “unforgiving” religious upbringing in Scotland. In an interview with the New York Times in 2016, he said that the Bible had “made me what I am, unfortunately”. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t “get that book out of my twisted psyche”.
It came as little surprise to learn that as he was dying (of cancer) Philip turned to God, despite having had complex relations with Him over the years.
King recalled that his first introduction to Philip was a charming handwritten letter, along with the manuscript of his first novel, March Violets, and a rather dashing author photograph. The latter item was suggested by the Irish novelist Edna O’Brien, on the basis that many publishing editors were female. The photo showed Phil puffing on a huge cigar and wearing red braces à la Michael Douglas in Wall Street. It was duly published on the novel’s dust jacket.
It was a fine spring day and there was an exceptional turnout at St Mary’s, Wimbledon, from the top table of London’s literary and film world: Sebastian Faulks, Graham Swift and the Oscar-nominated producer Peter Czernin, to name just a few heavyweight names. Philip’s wife, Jane, looked sad but proud, as did his three children who all read bravely and beautifully.
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