Philip Kerr excels at navigating the dark corners of crime thrillers without providing much guiding light to his hero, Berlin detective Bernie Gunther. The challenge for Gunther couldn’t be more extreme: Nazi Germany, where he tries to dispense a rough justice amid so much officially sanctioned crime.
Gunther has no illusions about trying to save the world from Nazism; he’s too busy trying to save himself, since so many of the party elite admire his skills as a sleuth — an old-fashioned street bull with a thug’s touch and closer’s instinct — that they often summon him to their viper’s nest for the odd job.
In this World War II series, Kerr jumps from prewar Berlin to postwar Latin America. In this newest installment, “Prague Fatale,’’ Bernie is back in the war zone at a pivotal time in the Nazis’ jack-booted stomp across the continent: The cartoon-like party brass are greedily supping on the spoils of conquered Czechoslovakia while their grunts in gray are ominously being muddied and bloodied by a stubborn Russia. Another disturbing undercurrent emerges — the complaints of promising young officers haunted by their participation in murder squads that executed Jews and other innocent civilians. Ach mein Gott!
The main plot concerns Gunther’s Nazi patron, the scheming Reinhard Heydrich, who is preparing to celebrate his coronation as Reichsprotector of Czechoslovakia but suspects an assassin is plotting an attack at the country estate he has commandeered. So he enlists Gunther to sniff it out. A murder does take place there — not of Heydrich but an addled young adjunct who has confided to Gunther of his torment over executing innocents. As it happens, Gunther witnessed similar atrocities so feels a connection with the officer.
Pairing Gunther with such hateful Nazis as Heydrich is one of the many cruel jokes Kerr likes to play on his detective. Bernie is neither a Nazi nor a sympathizer. But his detective skills make him highly useful for their rivalries and infighting. He is no serious threat to them. Gunther knows this, and has to settle for payment on small terms, if only for his dignity.
In classic noir style, Gunther is deeply cynical and ruthless when necessary, and too often so stupidly chivalrous that he is forever enduring a beating — of both the body and the heart. With Fatale in its title, a picture of a ’30s dance-hall-like femme on its cover, and a lusty Gunther in the narrator’s seat, this book delivers one of those “only in wartime’’ trysts that any fool can see is going to end badly but seems impossible not to put in motion.
The woman is a mysterious coat-check beauty with a hard-to-believe cover about her link to the crime that opens the mystery. Gunther buys her story, beds her, and rashly brings her with him to Prague, where the various plots inevitably entwine. The murders seem a bit dense at times to unpack, but they’re fun to follow along nonetheless.
Better is Kerr’s way with a sentence. He’s particularly keen at putting the unpolished Gunther up against the venal Nazi officers, rendered as either sallow killers or unctuous poseurs. “A uniform suited him and he knew it. There was a second-class Iron Cross ribbon worn from the second buttonhole on his tunic, and the right angles on the flares of his riding breeches looked as if they’d been put there by Pythagoras. The Spanish-cut top-shaft boots were polished like horse brass . . . I had half an idea that if Heydrich ever accused him of being improperly dressed, Kluckholm would have hanged himself with his own aiguillette.”
“Prague Fatale’’ is a sturdy addition to the Gunther series. It does seem, though, to pale a bit to its immediate predecessor, “Field Gray.’’ That novel takes place at the end of the war and is shot through with a kind of existential desperation as Gunther learns the victors aren’t such good guys after all. “Field Gray,’’ or rather, the mood it inspires, stays with you long after finishing it; “Prague Fatale’’ is a book to enjoy and pass along to another Gunther fan, before teeing up for the next Kerr wonder work.