Thursday, March 22, 2012

Eight is Enough for Now: Philip Kerr's Prague Fatale

Never thought I'd say this. Never thought I'd have to say this. Philip Kerr needs to take another extended break from Bernie Gunther, his series of detective novels set during the rise and fall of the Nazis in Germany. Gunther is a private detective. He's a former cop who left the force (forced out?) because he became sickened by what the Nazis were doing to his city, Berlin, his country, Germany, and its people, especially the Jews. The eighth novel in the series, Prague Fatale (Putnam, 2012), was published late last fall in the UK, and will be published on April 17th in Canada (I read the UK edition which I got from overseas). It is, I'm sad to say, the only failure in this series of books.

It's not a complete disaster (though the book needed one more edit. There's an irritating grammatical mistake on the first page that threw me out of the book just as I was starting). Gunther is still a compelling, tarnished-armour knight who tries to help the little guy, and Kerr's research is still second-to-none. But because of a decision Kerr took here – a decision I can understand intellectually – he's stumbled badly. All the other novels take place over two or more time frames. Most of them shuffle back and forth between periods before and after the war; while others deal with the war directly and a few years after; and the most recent, Field Grey, stuck strictly to two periods after the war. But here, in Prague Fatale, Kerr does something I never expected: he's written an Agatha Christie novel. In fact, it's a riff on her classic locked-room murder mystery The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. He doesn't even try to disguise it, even having Gunther give a shout-out to the book by name, and at one point earlier has Gunther say the following:

“We'd lock you up for the night, if we were doing this the proper police way, not like some bullshit scene in a crappy detective novel by that English lady novelist Heydrich seems to admire so much.”

Kerr does bring some twists to Prague Fatale – the level of fear and violence is so much more highly elevated than in Christie's legendary genteel murder mystery – but it ends up playing exactly like a Christie book. The whole plot, except for a brief bit at the beginning and at the end, is set in 1941 and takes place over the duration of a weekend. Gunther has been temporarily brought back into the Berlin police department not because anybody likes his outspoken anti-Nazi commentary, but because some Nazi higher ups, particularly Reinhardt Heydrich, admire Gunther's skills as a detective. In Kerr's world, if a non-entity such as Gunther is championed by someone like Heydrich you are considered to have “Vitamin B,” basically untouchable. He is recruited by Heydrich to come to Prague to act at first as his bodyguard in a beautiful old home outside of the city.

Reinhard Heydrich in 1940
Heydrich, for those who don't know, was considered one of the most ruthless of all Nazis. He was the main architect of the Final Solution; he ordered the November 1938 Kristallnacht (night of broken glass) attack where Jewish businesses were defaced and destroyed throughout Germany and Austria; and when he was posted to Prague, his nickname was “the Butcher of Prague.” Gunther knows most of this, but keeps it to himself (but telling us through his narration). Yet, Gunther is a survivor and so he accepts the invitation to spend the weekend at Heydrich's confiscated villa (it was stolen from a wealthy Jewish couple). The next day, one of Heydrich's adjutants (assistants) is found murdered in a room locked from within. So, as with the Christie novel(s), Heydrich insists that Gunther solve the killing and gives him carte blanche to say anything to any of the people who were in the house when the killing occurred, including many high-ranking officers – many of whom outrank Gunther (he's a Captain when he is brought back in to the force).

There's a girl, of course. As usual with Gunther, the relationship doesn't go well. And yet, unlike the other times, I really had no feeling for the girl, Arianne Tauber, other than she is slightly damaged and has had to perhaps work as a prostitute in Berlin to make ends meet. I developed little feeling this time for most of the people who populate this novel. When I’ve read all the other books in the Gunther series, I've been generally able to create in my mind's eye what the characters look like. Here I had no sense of what anybody looked like, including Heydrich. In fact, when doing brief research for this review I found a picture of Heydrich. I didn’t think, “Hey, that's not what I pictured him looking like.” Rather, I found myself saying, “Oh, that's what he looks like.”

Author Philip Kerr
I don't know if Kerr was bored, or if he honestly wanted to pay tribute and play around with the Christie style of mystery (that's what I meant when I said earlier I understood this book intellectually – though that may be the problem here; it's an exercise more than a novel). Whichever it is, he's mostly failed. In fact, the only time the novel comes alive is in the final 50 pages, after the mystery has been solved and Heydrich's real reason for bringing Gunther to Prague is revealed. Then, the true ferocity of the physical, as well as psychological, violence the Nazis practised is brought home. Even here, though, there is a flaw. Kerr, tiresomely, decides to make an equation between the Nazi torture methods and the ones the Americans supposedly used at Guantanamo Bay (namely, waterboarding). News flash, Philip: The Americans aren't fascist and their government can't begin to touch the horror the Nazis perpetrated.

I hope that after Prague Fatale, Kerr decides to take another breather before he writes another Bernie Gunther effort. I can easily foresee one, maybe two more because, if he continues to pursue the same trajectory he was playing with in books one through seven, there is still plenty of unfinished business left in Gunther's story. And Kerr can tell it well. Of that, I have no doubt. But perhaps this was a breather/contractual obligation. He certainly hasn't destroyed Gunther for me with Prague Fatale; it's just that I have always held these novels to a pretty high standard. And he simply failed to come close to the pinnacle this time.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

1 comment:

  1. I cannot bear not to have another Bernie Gunther novel...Phillip Kerr is the best