Do you know Bernie Gunther, Philip Kerr's Nazi-era Berlin detective? Berliners are known for their cynicism and mordant humor, but even among Berliners, Bernie Gunther stands out. Like a Teutonic Sam Spade, Bernie is a wisecracking, tough-talking hardhead who stubbornly refuses to kowtow to anybody, even when he knows it would be a lot better for his health and well-being.
In Prague Fatale, number eight in Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series, it's 1941 and Bernie has returned to Berlin from the Eastern Front. He's relieved to have left the East, but he's not happy and is unlikely ever to be happy again. He's seen too much, done too much. As a member of the SD, the intelligence arm of the SS, he witnessed "special actions," in which Jews––men, women and children––were murdered en masse, and Bernie himself executed Russian POWs suspected of being agents for the Soviet NKVD intelligence service.
Author Philip Kerr walks a fine line with the Bernie Gunther series. The books are written in a wisecracking style, and we laugh at Bernie's observations about the absurdities of life in the Third Reich. But, over the years of his experience with the Nazis, he never kids himself about what he learns of the depths of their depravity, or makes excuses about the complicity of all Germans, himself included, in the regime's crimes.
Kerr is clearly well-versed in the history of Nazi Germany. He places Bernie in the midst of real characters and events, and weaves together fact and fiction to make an entirely believable story. Kerr doesn't use his depth of knowledge in a show-offish way but, instead, he subtly imbues every scene with the language, sights, sounds, tastes and smells of the time and place, so that the overall effect is that we live in that world with Bernie.
Although this is the eighth book in the Bernie Gunter series, it can easily be read on its own, without having read other books in the series. In some ways, it's a bit of a departure from the other books in the series, because of the country-house, locked-room aspect that is reminiscent of a Golden-Age mystery. (Agatha Christie is even referenced.) It's also a much more straightforward narrative than some of the recent books, which have tended to tell stories set in two or more time periods and places. But what hasn't changed is what has always made this series so compelling: powerful characterization and storytelling, and a masterful blend of fact and fiction.
Note: A version of this review appears on the Amazon product product page under my Amazon user name. I received a free review copy of this book.