Police detective and sometime private eye Bernie Gunther, the star of Philip Kerr's marvellous Berlin Noir trilogy (which has now expanded to eight novels), has travelled with the series from the early days of Hitler in 1930s Germany to Argentina and Cuba among expatriate Nazis in the 1950s.
In Prague Fatale, however, he is back in the early days of the Second World War, dealing with a case that combines espionage, terrorism and a locked-room mystery.
It's 1941, and Gunther has returned to Berlin from the Eastern Front, where he was an unwilling member of the SD, the intelligence branch of the SS. He is traumatized from having witnessed “special actions,” in which Jews were massacred; he was also personally responsible for executing Russian prisoners suspected of being Soviet agents.
Gunther – smart-mouthed, cynical and stubborn – is back at work as a detective with Berlin's Kriminalpolizei, investigating the death of a Dutch railway worker. In the course of that investigation, he rescues a young woman from what appears to be a rape attempt. But the victim, a beauty who works as a hat-check girl in a seedy bar, is in more trouble than Gunther suspects.
And as if that weren't enough, Reinhard Heydrich, newly appointed Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia (what is now the Czech Republic), which has just been taken over by Germany, becomes involved in Gunther's life again. Heydrich believes – with good reason – that there is a plot to murder him and wants Gunther to join him in Prague as a combination bodyguard and detective. Since Heydrich, a.k.a. “Hitler's Hangman,” is the head of the Gestapo and all police forces in Germany, Gunther has little choice in the matter.
In Heydrich's villa outside Prague, Gunther finds himself hobnobbing with dozens of senior Nazis, not his favourite people. All he wants to do is get through the assignment and get back to Berlin. But when one of Heydrich's adjutants is discovered in his locked bedroom, shot dead, Heydrich turns to Gunther, the only real policeman around, to solve the mystery. As Gunther tries to solve the adjutant's murder, stepping on jackbooted toes at every opportunity, Heydrich searches for a spy in the upper ranks of the party members and tracking down Czechoslovakian “terrorists,” who are resisting their new Nazi rulers with extreme violence.
Philip Kerr does his usual fine job of setting the scenes and portraying the personalities of the era. His Nazis are note-perfect creations, as are the other characters, fictional and historical, of Second World War-era Europe, all of it flavoured by the wisecracking, tough-talking Gunther, who has been called the Sam Spade of Nazi Germany. Kerr knows his modern German history, and is gifted at storytelling, and Gunther is a dark anti-hero for the ages.
H.J. Kirchhoff is the deputy Books editor of The Globe and Mail.