Do you know the Bernie Gunther, Philip Kerr's Nazi-era Berlin detective? Berliners are known for their cynicism and mordant humor, but even among Berliners, Bernie Gunther stands out. Like a German Sam Spade, Bernie is a wisecracking, tough-talking hardhead who stubbornly refuses to kowtow to anybody, even when he knows it would be a lot better for his health and wellbeing.
It's 1941 and Bernie has returned to Berlin from the Eastern Front. He's relieved to have left the East, but he's not happy and is unlikely ever to be happy again. He's seen too much, done too much. As a member of the SD, the intelligence arm of the SS, he witnessed "special actions," in which Jews--men, women and children--were murdered en masse, and with he personally executed Russian POWs suspected of being agents for the Soviet NKVD intelligence service.
Now back as a detective with Berlin's Kriminalpolizei ("Kripo"), Bernie is investigating the suspicious death of a railway worker who'd come to Berlin from the Netherlands. That's his official investigation. His unofficial investigation begins when he rescues a young woman from an attack on the menacing, blacked-out streets of the capital. If there's one thing Bernie can't resist, it's a beautiful damsel in distress, and this bar girl has landed herself in some real trouble.
A man with no sympathy for the Nazi cause or the Nazis he's met, Bernie has always tried to keep away from powers that be in the Third Reich. But, not for the first time, he is collared for a special assignment by Reinhard Heydrich, head of both the Gestapo and the Kripo, and newly-appointed Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia (the current Czech Republic). Heydrich is not only Bernie's ultimate boss, he is also known as "Hitler's Hangman" and "the man with the iron heart." Heydrich tells Bernie that there is a conspiracy to murder him and he wants Bernie to become part of Heydrich's detail and find the would-be murderer.
In the countryside near Prague, at Heydrich's palatial home (stolen from a Jewish family), Bernie has to rub shoulders with a large collection of Nazi bigwigs, there ostensibly to celebrate Heydrich's appointment as Reichsprotektor. They are every bit as unsavory as Bernie knew they would be, and Bernie hopes to finish his assignment and get out of Prague as soon as possible. His hopes are dashed when, one morning, the body of Heydrich's new adjutant is found shot twice in his locked bedroom.
Heydrich puts Bernie in charge of the investigation. It's a puzzler. How was the man killed in a locked room? Is there something in this new adjutant's past that led to his murder? Is there a thread that connects the adjutant's murder, the attempts to murder Heydrich, Heydrich's search for a Czech spy within Germany's upper echelons and maybe even Bernie's investigations back in Berlin? On a more personal note, what price will Bernie have to pay for subjecting Heydrich's high-powered Nazi thugs to questioning, Gunther-smartmouth-style?
Author Philip Kerr walks a fine line with the Bernie Gunther series. The books are written in a wisecracking style, and we laugh at Bernie's observations about the absurdities of life in the Third Reich. But, over the years of his experience with the Nazis, he never kids himself about what he learns of the depths of their depravity or makes excuses about the complicity of all Germans, himself included, in the regime's crimes.
The previous books in the Bernie Gunther series are described at the end of this review, and you'll see that this novel and its predecessor are the first to go into detail about Bernie's World War II experiences, including his service in the SS. Kerr manages to keep Bernie a deeply flawed but sympathetic character despite that. In Bernie, we see a man in a country gone mad, where conventional morality has been subverted to a genocidally racist philosophy. He is faced with horrible choices and his moral dilemmas force us to ask ourselves what we would do in Bernie's situation.
Kerr is clearly well-versed in the history of Nazi Germany. He places Bernie in the midst of real characters and events, and weaves together fact and fiction to make an entirely believable story. Kerr doesn't use his depth of knowledge in a show-offish way but, instead, he subtly imbues every scene with the language, sights, sounds, tastes and smells of the time and place, so that the overall effect is that we live in that world with Bernie.
Although this is the eighth book in the Bernie Gunther series, it can easily be read on its own, without having read other books in the series. In some ways, it's a bit of a departure from the other books in the series, because of the country-house, locked-room aspect that is reminiscent of a Golden Age mystery (Agatha Christie is even referenced). It's also a much more straightforward narrative than some of the recent books, which have tended to tell stories set in two or more time periods and places. But what hasn't changed is what has always made this series so compelling: powerful characterization and storytelling, and a masterful mix of fact and fiction.
ABOUT REINHARD HEYDRICH
Even powerful figures in the SS and the Nazi Party were afraid of Reinhard Heydrich, and with reason. By all accounts, he was relentless and heartless. Together with his boss, Heinrich Himmler, and Herrmann Göring, he planned the murder of most members of the SS's rival, the SA, and its head, Ernst Röhm, in what is called the Night of Long Knives. He used the Gestapo to punish anyone who might be a threat to Nazism or the SS.
Heydrich chaired the infamous Wannsee Conference, at which the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem was elaborated. He organized many of the key elements of the Holocaust program from its earliest days, including Kristallnacht, special killing operations on the Eastern Front, forced transports of Jews to ghettos and to death camps. If you would like to read more about Heydrich, I recommend Robert Gerwarth's Hitler's Hangman: The Life of Heydrich.
OTHER BOOKS IN THE BERNIE GUNTHER SERIES
Here is a brief description of each of the other books in the Bernie Gunther series, in publication order:
March Violets (Bernie Gunther). Set in 1936, after Bernie has been effectively forced out of the Kripo by the Nazi takeover and is acting as a private investigator.
The Pale Criminal (Bernie Gunther). Set in 1938, Bernie has a run-in with Heydrich, who dragoons Bernie back into the Kripo to investigate the murders of teenage girls.
A German Requiem (Bernie Gunther). The timeframe jumps all the way forward to 1946 and the smoking rubble of a defeated and chaotic Berlin. After spending the war in the SS and as a Russian POW, Bernie is again a PI, trying to find the killer of an American GI.
The first three books in the Bernie Gunther series are also available in an omnibus volume titled Berlin Noir: March Violets; The Pale Criminal; A German Requiem. After writing the first three books in the series, Kerr took a 15-year hiatus, writing standalone thrillers, before resuming the Bernie Gunther story.
The One from the Other: A Bernie Gunther Novel. Set in 1949, Bernie is married, but his wife is in a mental hospital after suffering a breakdown. Bernie is managing his father-in-law's failing hotel located practically next door to the site of the Dachau death camp. But Bernie returns to the PI business, working to track down a client's missing war-criminal husband. This introduces Bernie to the sinister operations that help Nazis escape justice by spiriting them out of the country and, generally, to South America.
A Quiet Flame: A Novel (Bernie Gunther). This novel tells two stories. One is set in 1950 when Bernie, framed as a war criminal, becomes part of a secret transport of Nazis to Juan Perón's Argentina. There, Bernie is forced by the local police to help them solve the gruesome murder of a young woman. The case resembles two unsolved murders Bernie investigated in 1932, when he was a detective with the Kripo. There are many flashbacks to Bernie in 1932.
If the Dead Rise Not: A Bernie Gunther Novel (Bernie Gunther Novels). In another dual-narrative novel, we go back to 1934 Berlin, where Bernie is a house detective at the famed Adlon. In the later narrative, Bernie is in 1954 Havana, where he becomes involved with some of the US mobsters doing business there.
Field Gray: A Bernie Gunther Novel. The first book in the series to describe Bernie's WW2 experiences in detail. The book begins where the preceding book left off: 1954 Havana. Bernie is taken captive on a US naval vessel and is spirited back to Europe and made a pawn in the deadly espionage games of the Cold War powers. The story revisits Bernie's time in an SS "police battalion" during the war, his being a Soviet POW in nightmarish camps, imprisoned again in France and then coerced into becoming a field agent for both the French and US intelligence services. A complex story.