Kerr, Philip - 'Prague Fatale'
PRAGUE FATALE is the eighth in the series featuring German sleuth Bernie Gunther. After a brief section at the beginning relating to the death of Heydrich, the book moves back in time to 1941, the autumn following Gunther's time in Minsk, described in FIELD GREY, the previous novel in the sequence. Bernie is back in Berlin, and back to his usual police job investigating murders, insofar as that job title makes sense in a regime carrying out millions of its own killings. Bernie considers himself to be a shadow of his former self, depressed and guilty following his service in the killing fields of Eastern Europe. Berlin itself is bleak – there are food shortages, air attacks by the British, and Jewish people are forced to wear a yellow star.
At the start of the novel, Bernie investigates the death of a Dutch labourer, a crime which arouses little official interest, due to the victim being a foreigner. He then encounters "good time" girl, Ariane, a war widow making a living working in the more decadent of Berlin's bars, and rescues her from an assault (assaults in the black out were unfortunately not unusual in that era). Bernie is then involved in the investigation of the death of Arianne's attacker, who turns out to have been a Czech intelligence officer, and does his best to keep Arianne's tangential role from the attention of the authorities. Czech spies are a particular concern to the Nazi regime; the "Three Kings", a Czech anti-Nazi resistance group remain at large, passing intelligence to Moravec in Britain.
The Czech connection continues: Heydrich, the new Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia, orders Bernie to come to his official residence near Prague, to be his personal bodyguard and detective at a gathering of top Nazis he has invited there to celebrate his new role. Ironically the residence at Panenske Brezany was originally owed by a Jewish businessman, Ferdinand Bloch-Blauer, whose wife, Adele, was the subject of an iconic Klimt portrait referred to in this book. Underneath the facade of luxurious accommodation at Panenske Brezany, and abundance of quality food, alcohol, coffee and cigarettes, lie the dark hearts of the Nazi top brass. The gathering soon turns sour, when one of Heydrich's officers is found, shot dead, in a locked room. Bernie is put under a great deal of pressure by Heydrich to find the culprit, who is almost certainly one of the high ranking Nazi guests. Gunther has to delve into the secrets and foibles of these war criminals as he interrogates them to solve the murder, which he does in his inimitable style, not afraid to offend or provoke them.
Gunter remains a sympathetic character, a kind of German everyman, not a Nazi but carefully treading a tightrope between his principles and staying alive, leaving the reader with just that niggle of doubt as to whether he is trying to paint himself and his conscience in the most flattering light possible. The Prague depicted in this book is most definitely not the beautiful tourist city we are used to, post Velvet Revolution. Most of the action takes place at Heydrich's country estate, in a hotel room with Arianne, or in the terrifying police HQ in Prague. Through Gunther's eyes we experience Prague as a ominous and frightening place, due to the brutality of the German invaders, and the ferocious nature of their reprisals against the resistance. The spectre of the Final Solution looms; Gunter sees that Heydrich has made a note in his diary of the forthcoming infamous Wahnsee conference.
Kerr tells a fast paced tale with a compelling air of menace. PRAGUE FATALE is, quite simply, an excellent novel, evocative and compelling, intelligent and thrilling. With its straightforward timeline, it would work well as a standalone for those new to this series.
Laura Root, England