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A little over twenty-five years ago, I came across Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy, in which Bernie Gunther, that tough Berlin copper turned hotel detective made his first appearances. The three novels took Bernie through the first years of the Nazi regime and through the war. And that appeared to be that. Bernie was not to re-appear for fifteen years but, happily, he's been resurfacing regularly ever since. Kerr has obviously been excavating the sordid history of Nazi Germany both in wartime and after and the result has been an extraordinary series of novels in which Bernie is at the scene of most of the major events of the period, co-opted by real historical figures like Heydrich and Himmler, but retaining a kind of central stripped-down noir morality that leaves him frequently overwhelmed with self-disgust but never destroys his instinct for self-preservation.
PRUSSIAN BLUE begins where the previous THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE left Bernie - on the Riviera in 1956. But he is not to stay there long. One evening, an old foe, Erich Mielke, now high up in the East German Stasi, while stuffing his mouth simultaneously with lobster and chocolate informs Bernie that he must go off to England and kill a woman with whom he was entangled in the previous book. If he doesn't, he'll die himself. Needless to say, Bernie eludes his minders and takes off across France, headed for Germany. The journey forms a fairly small part of the larger tale and is interleaved within the central narrative of an investigation Bernie undertook in 1939, just prior to the invasion of Poland.
That crime is a simple one - someone has picked off a civil engineer named Karl Flex. The problem is where the shooting took place - on the terrace of the Berghof, Hitler's house at Berchtesgaden, where the Führer is expected to come very soon in order to celebrate his 50th birthday. Needless to say, the murder must be solved before Hitler can find out about it and his lieutenant, Martin Bormann, has recruited Bernie to do the job. Nor will a straightforward police investigation do - there is too much in the way of internal politics, corruption, and general jockeying for position at Obersalzberg and at the Leader's side to allow for anything remotely resembling honest policing.
But honest policing is what Bernie does. As his colleague, another Berlin detective, tells him, "Your trouble is that you're the worst kind of detective there is. A German detective. No, it's worse than that; you're a Prussian detective....If you investigate a case you have to do it scrupulously and to the very best of your ability....You just don't know when it's in your interest to stop." What keeps Gunther alive is his ability to present an unpalatable outcome as the most desirable of a series of poor alternatives.
What helps keep the Bernie Gunther series alive is Kerr's decision not to trudge chronologically through the decades of Bernie's adventures from early 30s Berlin till post-war sometime. The previous book was set almost exclusively on the Riviera and in the 1950s. This one takes place largely in 1939, in Obersalzberg, in a setting many readers will be familiar with thanks to countless documentary films on the rise of Hitler. Though the Leader (as he is called throughout) never appears, images of him posed with Eva Braun, his dog Blondie, or the Duke of Windsor are constantly brought to mind. Kerr is also remarkably able to avoid the improbability of Bernie's being on the scene of so many horrors or in contact with so many historical figures. He is no Forrest Gump, Zelig, or even, to stay in period, Lanny Budd. He does not change history by his presence nor does he influence for either good or evil even the smallest of actual events. He exists both to observe and make cynical wisecracks about what he sees, but he is no moralist, let alone a disrupter. His saving grace is that he does not benefit from the corruption of the regime but he never pitches a spanner in its works, either.
The Gunther series may be set in the past, but it is beginning to seem of more than historical interest. Bernie is not exactly a role model for our times; we can only hope he will not be one for our future.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2017
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