In Philip Kerr’s 8th Bernie Gunther book, after a very brief introductory 1942 preamble, we are taken back to September 1941. Bernie has returned from the Eastern Front where he has seen and participated in terrible crimes. His suicidal feelings of disgust and guilt are not improved by the rundown state of wartime Berlin. Back as a homicide detective Bernie is investigating the murder of a Dutch railway worker, when he meets Arianne Tauber a local good time girl who has been attacked in the streets. A common occurrence in the blackout.
But Bernie has to drop the investigation when he is summoned to Prague by Reinhard Heydrich, who has just been appointed the new Reich Protector of Bohemia-Moravia, as he wants Bernie to be his personal bodyguard.
‘Klein, my driver, is quite capable of pulling out a gun and shooting some witless Czecho. As am I. But I want someone around me who understands murder and murderers, and who can handle himself to boot. A proper detective who is trained to be suspicious.’
Heydrich has invited a group of SS officers to stay as guests at his country retreat of Jungfern-Breschan, a late nineteenth-century French-style chateau. The house was previously owned by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a Jewish sugar merchant, whose femme fatale wife Adele, was famously painted by Gustav Klimt. A copy of the painting sits on the wall during Bernie’s stay because the original had been stolen ‘by that greedy fat bastard Hermann Goring.’
It was a modest little place, but only by the standards of Hermann Goring, or Mussolini, perhaps.
When Captain Kuttner, one of Heydrich’s four adjutants is found murdered in his bedroom with the door locked from the inside, the story becomes a pastiche of the classic English country house murder mystery with a lengthy list of suspects all seemingly with secrets to hide. The irony in searching for a murderer in a house full of mass murderers is not lost on Bernie. As Bernie questions the suspects the reader learns about their careers, their rise through the Nazi ranks, and their weaknesses and hatred for each other.
This is a superb book written in a brisk first person narrative, a technique that emphasizes the horror of the events described. The suspects are almost all monsters with slightly varying degrees of guilt, and a welcome author’s notes at the end charts their respective fates. Crime fiction can be an entertaining, or can make telling social commentary, or it can educate.
Prague Fatale, whether it was intended as such or not, is almost all an education about evil; and because of the subject matter it cannot be called a pleasant or entertaining read. Even Bernie Gunther’s wit and the country house mystery format can’t hide the fact that this is mostly a story about man’s terrible inhumanity to fellow human beings. Perhaps Prague Fatale should be required reading for the sort of scum who appeared on the recent BBC Panorama program on Football supporters and Racism in Poland and Ukraine chanting anti-Semitic slogans, and abusing Asian fans and black players.
One advantage that Philip Kerr has in selecting this particular historical period to write about is that the real life situations are the stuff of fiction, and the characters more evil than any possible fictional creation.
‘But the real reason why Dr Jury likes opera so much is every bit as vulgar as you describe. Rumour has it he’s been having an affair with a young singer at the Deutsches Oper in Berlin. Rather an attractive creature by the name of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. And that would be vulgar enough were it not for the fact that she’s also singing a duet with Doctor Goebbels. At least, that’s what General Heydrich says.’
The plot of Prague Fatale is not a complex as some as the earlier books in the series with their back stories and repeated flashbacks, but it is equally as hard hitting. Perhaps more so as the contrast between the luxurious lifestyle at Jungfren-Breschan and what goes on outside is so stark. There are some moving passages where Bernie gets food to help the elderly Jewish sisters who live in the apartment below his, or where he stands up for an elderly Jewish veteran, with the Knight’s cross with oak leaves on a ribbon round his neck alongside the yellow star on his coat. But this is a bleak tale because it is based on reality.
Prague Fatale is a thought provoking and at times difficult read, but an important addition to a fine series, and made me want to fill in my gaps in the Bernie Gunther story.
The Bernie Gunther series with links to my reviews.
A German Requiem
The One from the Other
‘Like all the General’s henchmen he’s a bit of a golem. Except that he’s a German, of course. The original Golem of Prague was-’
‘Jewish. Yes, I know.’
‘Like his master.’ Doctor Jury smiles. ‘Rabbi Loew that is . Not General Heydrich.’
[Warning: there is an unpleasant example of torture towards the end of the book.]