Prague Fatale: A Bernie Gunther Novel

by Philip Kerr

The traditional job of the police procedural is for the cop --- representative of society and all that is good and decent --- to catch the criminal, solve the crime and restore the social order. But what if the social order itself is criminal and evil beyond belief? What does a cop do then?

This is the question that Bernie Gunther faces in PRAGUE FATALE, the eighth book in Philip Kerr’s series about the Berlin cop (the first three books were issued together under the title Berlin Noir). Bernie was a Berlin police detective until the Nazis took power. Then he went out on his own for a bit, but in 1938, the Nazis brought him back onto the force under the policy he calls “no bloody choice.” Bernie is not a Nazi; indeed, he hates them. But he now finds himself automatically part of the SS and their intelligence unit, the SD, although he is not Gestapo. The dreaded SS controls all police in Germany and its occupied territories.

"This is a fascinating story that moves along at a rapid pace... PRAGUE FATALE is a well-written and engaging mystery, a story all the more horrible because this was happening in 1941 as a once-civilized nation embraced the darkness and descended into total madness."

“The thought of suicide is a real comfort to me; sometimes it’s the only way I can get through a sleepless night,” Bernie says at the start of his narration of PRAGUE FATALE, as he cleans and prepares his gun. It is the fall of 1941, three months after Hitler’s disastrous invasion of Russia. Shortages are appearing in Berlin, and on occasion British bombers are able to reach the city. Bernie was sent with other SS “Special Action Groups” of police to Belorussia. What he witnessed there was the wholesale massacre of Jews who were supposed to be “relocated.” He is sent home in disgrace because, he says, “I’m a bit particular about who I pull the trigger on.”

Haunted by what he has seen, Bernie figures it is just a matter of time before he either kills himself or the Nazis arrest him for his disloyalty and send him to a concentration camp. But they still need experienced cops in the civilian police of Berlin, and Bernie keeps busy investigating the discovery of the headless body of a “foreign worker” on the railroad tracks. He also stumbles upon a beautiful woman apparently being sexually assaulted in a train station during a blackout one night. He chases her assailant until the man is struck by a taxi and escapes only to be found dead in a park soon thereafter. He investigates that as well. Bernie decides to help the girl, withholds evidence for her, and keeps her out of the hands of the Gestapo despite his discovery that she might have some innocent link to spies, or what the Nazis call “terrorists.” They soon are involved in a torrid affair.

The woman rekindles life in Bernie again, but then something really bad happens to him. His nominal boss in the SS, General Reinhard Heydrich --- the most feared Nazi leader --- needs the services of a good cop in the confiscated Jewish estate that serves as his headquarters in occupied Czechoslovakia. Hitler has just put Heydrich in charge of that country, and the General is throwing a party for many of the SS high command, which Bernie describes as a “menagerie of unpleasant animals --- rats, jackals, vultures, hyenas --- who had set for some bizarre group portrait.”

And then there is Heydrich. Kerr writes: “Heydrich’s eyes narrowed. I preferred his profile. When you saw his profile it meant he wasn’t looking at you. When he looked at you, it was only too easy to feel like the helpless prey of some deadly animal. It was a face without expression behind which some ruthless calculation was in progress.”

When one of the General’s adjuncts is found shot to death in a locked bedroom, Bernie is put on the case and ordered to locate the killer before Hitler finds out and the murder embarrasses Heydrich in Berlin.

This is a fascinating story that moves along at a rapid pace. And we cheer as Bernie gets to question and be impertinent to the Nazi brass, although it is less clear why any of them don’t just shoot him dead on the spot. Kerr’s Gunther mysteries are often compared to Chandler’s Marlowe stories in that Bernie is the ultimate knight errant. But they are far darker because we know that people like Heydrich once existed and we remember what they did.

The locked-door murder investigation moves along to its inevitable conclusion, but then Kerr does something truly terrifying in PRAGUE FATALE. He takes us into the basement of Gestapo headquarters in Prague with Heydrich and Bernie to witness the “water bascule.” Every American today knows this particular torture by another name --- waterboarding --- where the subject is strapped to a board and dunked to the point of death under water. The head of the Prague Gestapo proudly tells Heydrich, “With all due respect, sir, there’s not much worse than the water bascule. Short of death itself, which would hardly be to the purpose, no other torture quite persuades as much that you are surely about to die.”

The 20 or so pages describing waterboarding is one of the most horrifying things I have ever read in a mystery and will keep you awake at night. Was Kerr making a political point here about events in recent American history? Probably. But facts are facts. The Japanese used this particular “interrogation technique” against captured U.S. soldiers in World War II and were convicted and hung after the war as war criminals because of it.

PRAGUE FATALE is a well-written and engaging mystery, a story all the more horrible because this was happening in 1941 as a once-civilized nation embraced the darkness and descended into total madness. Heydrich issues the infamous order that all Jews must wear yellow stars to identify themselves in the fall of that year. Yet no “good” Germans offer any resistance. Fear rules. And when old ladies who lived peacefully in the neighborhood for decades suddenly disappear and are sent east to be slaughtered, the rationale of the “good” neighbors is that they will be happier there “with their own kind.” The story is equally disturbing because it forces readers to ask some tough questions about the means vs. the ends practiced in our own recent history, also a time of rampant fear.

If you have not read any of the previous Bernie Gunther mysteries, this is a fine place to start.

Reviewed by Tom Callahan on May 25, 2012

Prague Fatale: A Bernie Gunther Novel
by Philip Kerr