A while ago I read March Violets, the first in Philip Kerr’s series featuring Bernie Gunther, a detective in Berlin during the Third Reich.
Initially I was gripped by the story, but it soon went off in a direction I did not particularly care for.
Yet, here I am years later reading another Bernie Gunther novel. Why? What for? – you may ask. Well, the plot of this one sounded a bit more interesting. A bit more like a proper whodunit in the style of Agatha Christie.
However it turned out to be a very different book than I expected. I thought it was going to be a claustrophobic affair, only a few characters trapped in a confined space, something like that. Instead it is almost your usual noir mystery.
After a promising opening where Bernie Gunther muses about committing suicide while cleaning his gun we are treated to a rather common hardboiled plot about a decent man trying to do the right thing. It is the autumn of 1941 and the German army has invaded Russia. Life is getting tight in Berlin, since food is scarce, because everything is sent to the front lines and confiscated for the soldiers. When a headless body is found on the railway tracks Bernie Gunther who now works for the official police force is called to investigate. Soon the murder turns out to be about a Czech spy ring the members of which were sent to Germany to commit terrorist attacks.
Yet before the investigation can be closed Reinhard Heydrich invites Bernie Gunther to Prague, or perhaps we should say, he orders him there. For some reason Gunther enjoys Heydrich’s protection despite being very outspoken and critical about the Nazi regime. “from time to time I’m useful to him in the same way a toothpick might be useful to a cannibal.” – Gunther remarks about his relationship to Heydrich.
Heydrich appoints Bernie to the post of his personal bodyguard, since he fears to be assassinated by Czech resistance. The main bulk of the plot takes place in a manor house outside of Prague where Heydrich and his party have taken up residence. We also learn that Heydrich enjoys reading mystery novels, he even mentions Hercule Poirot (which would be proof I guess, that nobody is all bad, even a truly despicable person might have some redeeming features).
The inevitable happens and a crime is committed. A member of Heydrich’s entourage is killed inside his locked bedroom. So, yes this is a locked-room mystery, just not a very original one, the mechanics of the murder will be familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of this subgenre. The surprise here lies in the motive.
I am probably not spoiling anything by telling you that Heydrich turns out to be every bit the monster one would expect. I recently watched the movie Operation Anthropoid about the Heydrich assassination and I have also read Laurent Binet’s HHhH about the same events, but the man remained a bit of an enigma to me. He was evil, yes, but was there anything else to him? Philip Kerr paints him as a remorseless sadist and master manipulator, but he is not a particularly fascinating villain, more like your average workplace bully.
Prague Fatale is an interesting glimpse into a dark historical time, but not really the atmospheric traditional mystery novel I was hoping for.