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Bernie Gunther Returns in 'Prague Fatale'

Genre master Philip Kerr pens another gem

May. 14, 2012
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What an unusual household Philip Kerr's must be, what with his wife and children presumably living a fairly conventional life in contemporary Britain and he a most unconventional one in the middle of Europe in the middle of the previous century.

Or so it would seem from the formidable research he must do for his historical novels of the World War II-era. He is absolute master of the genre; no one writing in English bests him, not David Downing or Jonathan Rabb, not even Alan Furst.

Kerr's reputation is solidly built upon a series of novels about Bernie Gunther, who began literary life in 1989 as a police detective turned hard-boiled, wisecracking private investigator in 1930s Germany in Kerr's “Berlin Noir” trilogy, which has since stretched itself to eight novels and to at least as many countries.

The series, jumping backward and forward in time, has also stretched across two decades, from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s, and across the Atlantic. Recent entries (A Quiet Flame, If the Dead Rise Not, Field Gray) have found him, at times, in Argentina and Cuba. His perilous peregrinations have forced him into many roles that he, a staunch anti-Nazi, never would have chosen, including SS officer and pawn in the postwar intrigues of several countries' spy agencies.

In his eighth novel, Prague Fatale (Putnam), it is September 1941 and Bernie is in what he considers his proper job as a murder detective in Berlin. Even if the “Kripo” (the criminal division of the police) has been corrupted, like everything else, by the gangster regime of Adolf Hitler, it is better than serving in a police execution unit on the Eastern Front, the morally reprehensible assignment he has just been released from.

Of course, Bernie's fate being ever dismal, this cannot last. Reinhard Heydrich, whose many positions include head of the Kripo, summons Bernie to act as his bodyguard. Since Heydrich's primary position is that of Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia in Czechoslovakia, that means Bernie travels with him to Prague and a gathering of high-ranking Nazis at Heydrich's country castle.

And here the plot of Prague Fatale—much, much less complicated than the plots of the last few novels—becomes essentially a locked-room mystery not unlike the novels of Agatha Christie that Heydrich is said to enjoy. One of Heydrich's adjutants is found murdered in a locked room of the castle and Heydrich assigns Bernie to investigate it.

But it is oh so much more than that. As a thriller, the action tackles the Czech resistance, the possibility of a high-level turncoat in the SS, and the romantic interest that apparently is obligatory in all thrillers—here, a woman named Arianne Tauber.

There is also the history lesson that readers receive. The accuracy and detail of time and place are simply exquisite—things such as slang, power relationships, views of everyday life—and are deftly and unobtrusively worked into the narrative.

But beyond and deeper than that is what might be called the morality lesson. At his core Bernie remains a once-and-future stoic white knight in the wisecracking Raymond Chandler mode, though life has thrown at Bernie blows to the physical, moral and emotional armor such as Philip Marlowe never had to face.

Bernie, as ever, is appalled at what he has become. Heydrich, shortly to become the architect of the “Final Solution,” is possibly the most ruthless figure in the Nazi pantheon of horror; Hitler called him “the man with the iron heart.” Yet Bernie's essential decency shines through even this Heydrich-suffused muck.

Those who read closely will find further nuggets; Kerr uses historical points to make contemporary ones—for instance, the SS torturers praise waterboarding as their most effective method. He subtly compares Hitler's anti-Semitism with Martin Luther's, and makes references to the Golem of Prague, though the point of the latter is frankly not so much subtle as obscure.

Lovers of literature who have little regard for thrillers should learn to love Bernie. He could use it.


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