I was delighted to receive the latest Bernie Gunther book, Prague Fatale, last week – an extra special pre – Christmas treat – and I managed to devour it over a number of very late nights. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him, Bernie Gunther is a dogged Berlin policeman and anti – hero of a series of detective novels set before, during and after World War II by Scottish author Philip Kerr.
This is the eighth book in the series and although they appear out of chronological sequence Gunther remains consistently stoic and appalled by the Nazi regime and his forced participation in its gruesome genocidal war.
It is September 1941 and the book starts out with a murder in Berlin and a beautiful woman, Adrianne, who Gunther saves from an apparent attempted rape. But nothing is at it seems.
It is shortly after this that Gunther is summoned to Prague by none other than Reinhard Heydrich, Reichsprotector of Bohemia who is hosting a house party of high-ranking Nazis at his rural residence, a castle, to act as his bodyguard. The Reichsprotector has concerns; apart from his feud with Himmler he has the Czech resistance to deal with and the presence of a high ranking spy in the SS. And so the scene is set but not before an untimely – or very timely – murder of one of Heydrich’s adjutants is committed in the castle and Bernie is requested to investigate.
This is where the book turns into a Nazi version of an Agatha Christie novel. This staging of an Agatha Christie plot is knowingly done as Kerr reinforces the concept by having Heydrich admit that he loves her thrillers. From then on we have the usual set up of a murder happening in a confined space, a series of suspects interviewed one by one, with the ingenious detective finally working out who committed the dastardly deed. And, as we all know, in an Agatha Christie novel the act of murder is always ridiculously complicated and this is no different except for the fact that the suspects are all high ranking Nazi Generals – who are real historical figures – with interesting pasts which gives Kerr an opportunity to pen short vignettes about the rise of these individuals within the Nazi party.
Like all good Agatha Christie books the plot of this novel is skilfully contrived but is still not as interesting as the character of Gunther himself who, as in all the novels, is constantly struggling to preserve something of himself from the moral destruction in which he has already been obliged to participate while serving in a police execution unit on the Eastern Front. In Prague Fatale he finds a distorting mirror in the wry pragmatism of his assistant on the case, Kahlo, who describes himself as “a steak”, brown on the outside but red in the middle.
Philip Kerr makes these novels special by being able to seamlessly weave history and fiction together and breathe life into the period. This is especially evident as the beginning of the book while Gunther is investigating the killing of a foreign worker on a Berlin S-Bahn station: the blacked-out city is hospitable to murder, food is short and it is reported that the tapir in the city zoo has been stolen and eaten. On the radio, Hitler and Goebbels instruct the nation to give to Winter Relief. The Wehrmacht has reached Kiev, and nothing can go wrong.
The book was a great read, especially for me who has a rather unhealthy obsession with the war period and is definitely one of the better books in the series. And should you wish to start reading them – and you should – I advise you to begin with the first three novels, The Berlin Trilogy.