© 2011 Phillip Kerr
Bernie Gunther is a man contemplating suicide. Once, in the Weimar years, he was a happily married policeman. But his wife died, he fell into the bottle, and not long after that Germany itself became intoxicated with a dream that would prove a nightmare – one that Gunther has seen far too much of. Following Hitler’s rise to power, Berlin’s detective corps — Gunther included – were absorbed into S.S.. Haunted by scenes of industrial murder, Gunther doesn’t care enough about his life to even pretend to like the Nazis, and his brazen honesty, coupled with dogged detective skills, makes him a valuable if unwilling asset to Nazi officials whose pragmatism overpowers their ideology. In Prague Fatale, Gunther is pulled away from a strange murder in Berlin, ‘invited’ to join General Reinnard Heydrich at his new estate outside of Prague. Someone is after Heydrich’s life, and the Man with the Iron Heart wants to know who. When Gunther arrives, he finds himself surrounded by contemptible men, all of whom loathe one another – and when the one man he likes is murdered, Gunther’s guard detail turns into an investigation with tragic results.
I never fail to enjoy a Kerr/Gunther novel, but I’ve learned over the years to take them sparingly. Full of dark humor, historical details (including slang), and Raymond Chandler-like narration, they would be an absolute joy to read were it not for the often-dark subject materials: Prague Fatale introduces an extended torture scene late in the novel, and while it’s far from being as harrowing as The Lady from Zagreb, it still requires a sunshine-and-kittens palate cleanser. Heydrich and Gunther have fascinating exchanges, as the cynical Berliner hates the general, and the general knows it. Although Gunther hardly cares if Heydrich dies, Kerr gives him reasons to be personally involved in the resolution of the murder, and later Heydrich’s on-going attempts to expose a Czech spy. It’s that personal investment that makes the novel’s final act fairly harrowing. I knew things wouldn’t end well – I’ve read too many in this series to expect anything but a Pyrrhic victory — but even so, I close this thoroughly entertained, but again determined to wait a few months before I read Kerr again.