Festival of Books: History's dark corners make good crime, spy novels
Here’s a humdinger of a story from the Scottish crime novelist Philip Kerr about a research trip to Russia following some local cops with whom he thought he had built a good rapport.
“The cop was always joking – “So you are British spy, yes?’ I always told him, ‘Of course I am.’ One night we went and got very drunk together, it was the first time I’d ever finished a bottle of vodka by myself. Then the cop said, ‘Now we go someplace special.’ We got in the car and drove and I fell asleep for a bit, and when I woke up we were in a forest. I had a beautiful translator with me and she said, quietly, ‘I do not like this.’
“We got out the car and the cop made me walk to a frozen lake, and I had to tell him, ‘You know that I was kidding about being a spy, right?’ So he starts taking his clothes off and I think, ‘Oh no, he doesn’t think I’m a spy, he thinks I’m gay.’ Then he lifts this giant rock over his head and I’m thinking, ‘Oh well, at least this is a better way to go than if he shot me,” and he throws it onto the ice and cracks a big hole in it. He jumped in and just sank, then came up and said, ‘This is where I go when I have to sober up very quickly.”
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The rest of the “Crime Fiction: Listening In” panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Sunday was almost an afterthought compared with that stranger-than-his-own-fiction anecdote from the author of the Bernie Gunther spy novels.
As moderator Paula Wood noted, all three writers share an interest in Eastern Europe and Germany, with stories set just after World War II through the Cold War. Steinhauer explained his interest with self-deprecating candor. “When I was 19, I lived in Zagreb on a student-exchange program, doing what most 19-year-olds do, which was drinking. This was in 1989, and the Romanian revolution happened right next door. When I came home I was so ashamed that I was unaware of what was happening that I started researching.”
Kanon agreed that the overlooked corners of history are often what spark a good spy or crime novel. During the run-up to Nazi Germany, the setting of many of his novels, he suggested “so many German and European emigres came to Los Angeles, it was one of the greatest centers of intellectual life in the world at the time, and no one here knew it. I wanted to know what their lives were like.”
That need to keep a human presence at the heart of unimaginably huge government and criminal forces is the backbone of any good crime or spy caper, “I’m fed up with the rhetoric of how we describe horrible things, describing them as 'animal' or 'bestial.' What the Nazis did was all too human. We always ask, “How did this happen?” The answer is, it happens again and again and again.”
Steinhauer agreed, to a point, “I believe people do whatever they do for personal reasons,” he said. “It’s not religion or politics. Those things just give them something to feel complete.” Although Kanon did caution against sentimentalizing or shrinking the scale of historical crimes for the sake of art. “World War II was the worst thing that ever happened. Sixty million people died, and now it’s a Betty Grable movie.”
For a novelist working in history and statecraft, there’s a wealth of factual knowledge that can inspire and restrain. All three described the lengthy (and, in Kerr’s case, freezing and perilous) research processes to fill their narratives with a sense of place grounded in actual skullduggery.
But they’re novelists first, and they lamented when fans miss the forest for the trees.
“Gun people are the worst,” Kanon said. “Once I inaccurately described a part of a pistol, and I got all these letters where they said, ‘Only a fool wouldn’t know that.’ I thought ‘Next time, I’m only throwing people out of windows.' "
Photo: From left, moderator Paula Wood and authors Olen Steinhauer, Joseph Kanon and Philip Kerr. Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times