Language in Literature: Phillip Kerr’s Brunetti Mysteries

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“You could have blown froth from the top of his accent it was so Bavarian.”

This is how mystery writer Phillip Kerr introduces a nefarious new character near the end of his trilogy Berlin Noir, set in Berlin and Vienna before, during, and after World War II.

For me, the next best thing to travel is reading books set in other countries, particularly books like Kerr’s where the way the language is spoken is as important as the architectural style or the food.

Earlier, the book’s hero, Herr Gunter, is caught trespassing, and since he’s been grabbed from behind, he relies on clues in the guard’s German to assess the situation: “He sounded big and not too bright.  And it was a strangely accented German he spoke:  like Prussian, but different; more like the Old Prussian I had heard my grandfather speak; almost like the German I had heard spoken in Poland.”  It turns out the guard is Latvian.

In part I of Berlin Noir, a mystery caller’s regional German accent is a clue to solving the mystery. In this sprawling, hard-boiled mystery thriller, Kerr describes six different regional German accents—from Berlin, Frankfurt, Bavaria, the Rhineland, Vienna, Latvia, and Munich. These linguistic variations fit perfectly in a book that is more about evoking time, place, and people than the actual whodunit.

The Donna Leon, Inspector Brunetti mysteries are set in Venice,  and after two dozen of them, you begin to feel like you could navigate the labyrinthine streets without a map.  You also want to know more about Veneziano, the local dialect which Brunetti uses to his advantage when interviewing witnesses of a certain age:

“Her voice flowed in the Venetian cadence:   in other circumstances, Brunetti would have slipped into Veneziano, but she was speaking in Italian, and so he did his part to retain the formality of the exchange.”

What’s great about the Brunetti novels, beyond good advice on when to address a suspect or witness in the ancient Venetian dialect, is that you develop a sense of how native speakers balance the official language with the often more private dialect of their native locale.

Brunetti’s endearing sidekick, Vianello, describes a fanatical group they are investigating:  “ ‘They’ve got to be a bunch of basibanchi  if you ask me.’  With that word, Veneziano at its most pure, scoffing at people who knelt in church bowed so low as to kiss the pew before them, Vianello gave yet more proof of their dialect’s genius and his own good sense.”

A consciousness of language as more than just a flat means of communication but as a living, breathing character in these books is why I love these authors and why they can evoke such a strong sense of place.

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