Book review: Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr

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Darkly down the rabbit hole

A locked door murder mystery in the best Agatha Christie tradition, a detective novel in the Chandler-esque style, and a story of political intrigue, espionage and the Second World War: let me introduce you to Phillip Kerr and his dark anti-hero Bernie Gunther.

To those readers familiar with Phillip Kerr’s work, Bernie Gunther requires no introduction. The hardboiled detective of Berlin’s KRIPO (criminal police) has been fully fleshed in the preceding novels in the series; Prague Fatale is the eighth. To those unfamiliar with Kerr, I hope that this review entices you to buy all the books and dedicate your summer reading list to Bernie’s evolution. The preceding books aren’t, however, a prerequisite to understanding this complex character; Prague Fatale can be enjoyed as a stand-alone novel.

The story begins in Berlin, 1941. Detective Bernie Gunther is back from Bellorussia and the Eastern Front, filled with loathing and guilt, contemplating suicide, laced with mordant humour and a deep disgust for Nazism. He is conf licted: investigating crimes while he feels the state is inf licting crimes against its citizens and those of the conquered neighbours. As Gunther says “…I came in through a door marked no choice.” But he has a job to do, and that is to investigate a murder. During the course of his work, he uncovers a dead Czech spy and rescues a beautiful blonde from imminent peril.

The scene shifts to a castle outside Prague where Reichsproctector Heydrich, the top SS man in Czechoslovakia, has summoned Gunther to inform him of an assassinat ion at tempt. A gathering of the top brass to celebrate General Heydrich’s recent appointment only muddies the water. As Bernie says, “In a room full of murderers, anything seems possible.”

A murder does ensue and as the General’s private detective, it’s Gunther’s job to question the assembled group. He takes wicked pleasure in digging out secrets that lead to an ever-larger mystery. Spies, double agents and sexual peccadilloes are all exposed, deepening the mystery within the mystery.

Any fan of detective fiction or well-written fiction will enjoy Prague Fatale and the other Gunther mysteries. If read sequentially, you feel you are getting a glimpse of a world imagined but also terribly real and told from a novel perspective. Gritty, intelligent, unf linching and doggedly determined, Bernie Gunther is an unforgettable character. These books are complicated, smart and darkly funny—an unexpected pleasure.

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