Berlin held a great fascination for the author Philip Kerr, who has died aged 62 of cancer: it was a place where the impact of evil upon essentially decent people was felt especially keenly. His morally ambiguous fictional private detective Bernie Gunther first appeared in March Violets (1989), set in the city in 1936, after the Nazis’ rise to power, and the first of his Berlin Noir trilogy. Each book, he later admitted, was aimed at painting Gunther into a corner “so that he can’t cross the floor without getting paint on his shoes”.
A German Requiem (1991) ended the trilogy by taking events to the end of the second world war and Vienna, but the lure of his protagonist and Berlin, which proves as much a character as its citizens, remained strong. The One from the Other (2006) was the first in a run of 10 more Berlin Noir novels. If the Dead Rise Not (2009) won the Ellis Peters Historic Crime award, and Greeks Bearing Gifts, set in 1957, is due to be published next month.
In the intervening years, Kerr produced standalone books, starting with the ambitious A Philosophical Investigation (1992), which married cyber-punk crime with the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. A complex and demanding tale of a serial killer, it led to him being listed alongside Iain Banks and AL Kennedy as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists under 40. But critical acclaim was not matched by sales. His commercial breakthrough arrived only in 1995 with Gridiron, a Towering Inferno-style action story.
Gunther was not Kerr’s only serial crime solver. In 2014 his love of football led him to embark on the first of three Scott Manson thrillers about a Premier League football coach and all-round fixer.
Born in Edinburgh, Philip was the son of William Kerr, a building planner, and his wife, Ann (nee Brodie). His parents had converted from the Free Church of Scotland to the evangelical Baptist church, deeming it more “family-friendly”.
It was not an easy fit for a boy with an aversion to water. “I could not swim or even bear to have my head under water and consequently the spectacle of full immersion baptism – and by extension, the very idea of washing away the sin that was required to make my peace with Jesus – was horrifying to me,” he later wrote.
As a result, from an early age he knew that “Jesus and I were not going to get along.” The final break came after his father’s death. When he saw a white horse galloping across a field six months later, Philip, by now a trainee tax lawyer aged 22, realised he needed to rebel against the path chosen for him.
He read widely, including “unsuitable” novels hidden by his parents. At the age of 12 he stole the key to a cupboard in which DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was hidden. This resulted in his first paid work as a writer. Aware his father would miss his copy of the book and that his friends wanted to read it, Kerr wrote his own version, The Duchess of the Daisies, which he rented out for “the edification of his schoolmates”.
Resentment of the church became entwined with an uncomfortable relationship with his birthplace, of which he said: “If you want to scar a child for life then bring it up in the city of John Knox.” At the upmarket Melville college his dark complexion led to racist bullying by his sandy-haired contemporaries and masters. The experience reinforced his sense of exclusion and in later years he described himself as a “deracinated Scot”. When he was 15 the family moved to the Midlands. His time at Northamptonshire grammar proved happier, and he returned to it for speech days.
Though he had wanted to study English at Birmingham University, Kerr bowed to paternal pressure and took up law. After a year in a kibbutz, Kerr returned to Birmingham for a postgraduate degree in jurisprudence.
After he left law, work as an advertising copywriter included a spell at Saatchi and Saatchi – though he had a tendency to get fired. While colleagues enjoyed boozy lunches, he preferred to be in the London Library, where he worked on five unpublished “sub-Martin Amis” novels until turning to crime in March Violets.
By the time Gridiron was published he was married to the journalist and author Jane Thynne, whom he had met while he was working as a gossip columnist on the London Evening Standard, and with whom he had three children, William, Charlie and Naomi.
Though the film rights to Gridiron and other novels were sold, none made it further than development. Steven Spielberg optioned the fantasy series The Children of the Lamp (2004-11), written under the name PB Kerr. The author regarded his relationship with Hollywood with wry amusement and enjoyed recounting anecdotes about La La Land. While waiting for Tom Cruise in the actor’s trailer, he found himself fretting about being late for a further meeting that day, with Robert De Niro.
His commitment to research led him into dangerous situations, sometimes in the seamier areas of Berlin, or as when travelling with the St Petersburg police for Dead Meat (1993), his thriller set among the Russian mafia. One particularly frightening day ended with the discovery of holes in the flak jacket he had been wearing. They marked where the previous wearer had been shot.
Kerr’s non-fiction works ranged from a research guide to anthologies of feuds and lies. He continued working until recently, copyediting his last novel, due for publication next year.
He is survived by Jane and his children.
• Philip Ballantyne Kerr, writer, born 22 February 1956; died 23 March 2018