PRUSSIAN BLUE -- Bernie Gunther, Philip Kerr's subversive, melancholic, acerbic, and occasionally hilarious detective, matches wits with the brutal officials of two Germanys -- pre- and postwar
russian Blue by Philip Kerr (2017, Marian Wood Books/Putnam; 539 pages)
Prussian Blue, Philip Kerr’s thrilling 12th entry in the saga of Bernie Gunther -- the Chandleresque German detective who has somehow managed to stay alive with his soul mostly intact through the rise of the Nazis, their catastrophic World War, and 11 years (and counting) of postwar intrigue -- is another top-notch thriller in this superb series.
The beginning of Prussian Blue finds Bernie where we left him at the end of The Other Side of Silence (2016), working as a concierge at the Grand Hotel Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera in 1956, his cover blown as he tries to navigate his way through treacherous post-war Europe, and the ghosts of his own past that won’t let him be. An old nemesis – deputy head Erich Mielke of the Stasi (East Germany’s brutal state police) -- turns up to ensnare him in a new plot over dinner. Mielke wants Bernie to travel to London and, with the vial of Thallium (a particularly nasty poison) he pushes across the table, poison a female agent who Bernie had a fling with in the last book. It’s either that or it’s Bernie’s neck in the noose. But with Bernie, there’s always a third option: run. As Bernie flees across France in a desperate attempt to escape into Germany, where he hopes to disappear, Bernie recalls an old murder case from 1939. It’s this case that forms the guts of the book, framed by occasional forays back into Bernie’s present predicament.
At Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in the Bavarian Alps, the body of a local bureaucrat has been found on the balcony of Hitler’s vacation home. Bernie is selected by his old boss, the dangerous Reinhard Heydrich of the SS, to solve the murder. The catch: Bernie has just one week to solve the crime, before Hitler is due back to celebrate his 50th birthday. As usual, Bernie’s in a bind: it would be a disaster if Hitler were to discover a murder had been committed on the terrace of his own home. But the mountaintop is home to a number of high-ranking Nazis -- including Martin Bormann -- and it just might be even more dangerous for Bernie if he finds one of them is the murderer. 1939 and 1956: two different eras, 17 years apart. But, as the twin plotlines take Bernie closer and closer to the truth and the German border, the two eras converge in an explosive climax.
As is always the case with Kerr, Prussian Blue is beautifully written, and Bernie Gunther remains one of the great anti-hero detectives ever put to paper. One of the fascinating things about the Bernie Gunther series, of course, is Kerr’s ability to show us the answer to the question, how could this have happened? How could the German people have allowed a handful of monsters to take them (and nearly the rest of the world with them) so willingly to hell? These days, however, there’s something else to be taken from Bernie’s story -- an undeniable mirror being held up to our own present insanity that we see playing itself out in a torturous drip-drip-drip of our daily news. And for those who wonder where our own nightmare might end, Bernie’s story might hold some clues, and more than a few warnings:
“Of course I was angry, and tremendously sorry, and as I stood there brooding on the true nature of the new order that was being created in Germany I felt a haunting sense of the man I’d once been – the detective who would have protested such an outrageous demonstration of tyranny, at the expense of his own career, perhaps even at the expense of his own life – and all I kept thinking was, You have to do something to stop these people, Gunther, even if it means shooting Adolf Hitler. You have to do something. Rattenhuber’s mouth was still moving inside his fat red face and I saw that what had happened to Diesbach and the two Gestapo men from Linz and Brandner was, to him, entirely justifiable. It was also very brutal and ruthless. These were brutal and ruthless men, Martin Bormann and his dwarves – they destroyed people and then they sat around the red marble fireplace at the tea house or wherever they talked about such things, and planned the destruction of others. No doubt the subject of a Polish invasion would be part of the Leader’s fascinating table talk at his own birthday party. To think I’d been so close to Hitler’s study at the Berghof. Couldn’t I have done something then? Planted a bomb, perhaps, or placed a land mine under his bathroom rug? Why hadn’t I acted then? Why had I done nothing?”
In the end, though, it’s not what Bernie didn’t do that makes him such a compelling character. It’s all the things he did do, all the regrets, all of his dark, twisted history and the beautiful, cynical dignity he manages to hold onto as he struggles to survive with his humanity intact in a world gone utterly mad.
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Recommended by: Greg
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN -- a psychological thriller that will change the way you look at other people's lives
The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins (2015, Riverhead Books; 336 pages)
This is suspenseful, edge of your seat, finish it in a weekend reading. I avoided this novel for a long time (too popular), but once I began, it was easy to get lost in the pages. Rachel is an unemployed alcoholic suffering from the inability to come to terms with her failed marriage. She becomes fascinated with a young couple she sees on her daily commute, and inserts herself into the murder investigation when the young wife is found dead. The fact that the young couple live just down the road from her ex-husband and his new wife, Anna, is no small influence on the story, but the lies and deceit that Rachel generates keep you guessing well into the story. The book is written in the voices of 3 women, Rachel, the dead woman, and Anna, out of sequence, which contributes to the success of this thriller.
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Recommended by: Ann
THE LAST GOOD KISS -- a lyrical, rambling, darkly funny, hard-boiled American detective story that transcends the genre
The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley (1988, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard; 244 pages)
If you’re a hardboiled mystery fan and you haven’t stumbled upon James Crumley yet, you’ve got a treat waiting for you. Several of them, in fact. Crumley wrote two fantastic series’ of rambling, violent, darkly humorous detective/crime novels from the mid 1970s through 2005, three years before his death in 2008. The first series begins with 1975’s The Wrong Case, and features world-weary private eye Milo Milodragovitch. The second stars another private eye, C.W. Sughrue, whose exploits begin in The Last Good Kiss, arguably Crumley’s best book, published in 1978.
Crumley has been compared to a post-Vietnam Raymond Chandler, and fans of the great L.A. mystery writer will see echoes of his classic The Long Goodbye in The Last Good Kiss. The tale kicks off with cynical, hard-drinking Vietnam vet Sughrue – a Montana P.I. who kills time by bartending at a topless bar – hired to track down the bigger-than-life alcoholic writer Abraham Trahearne by Trahearne’s ex-wife. Trahearne has disappeared, it seems, on one of his regular rolling binges – a tour, of sorts, of the taverns and bars of the roadside West. In a meandering narrative that is exceptionally well-written, often even poetic, Sughrue follows the trail of the drunken scribe, finally catching up with him in a rundown bar keeping company with a beer-lapping bulldog. A comical shootout ensues, and while Trahearne spends time nursing a gunshot wound to his buttocks, Sughrue gets hired by the tavern’s owner to find her long-missing daughter, who ran off in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury a decade earlier and hasn’t been seen since.
What follows is a seedy journey down the dark hole of the American dream – the one you fall into when the trap door opens beneath your feet. This is easily one of the best American mysteries ever written, and it transcends the genre, becoming one of the best American novels of the past half-century -- tough, lyrical, funny and tragic. It’s not the last great detective story – thankfully – but it’s certainly one of the best.
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Recommended by: Greg
The Posthumous Man by Jake Hinkson (2013, Beat to a Pulp; 190 pages)
Right from the jump, you know that Jake Hinkson, author of The Posthumous Man, knows his noir. Even if you were unaware that he’s the author of The Blind Alley, one of the best and most readable works out there on the subject, you know he’s steeped in the shadowy world of noir just from reading the back cover blurb:
“When Elliot Stilling killed himself, he thought his troubles were over. Then the ER doctors revived him. It’s infatuation at first sight when he meets his nurse, Felicia Vogan, a lost soul with a ‘weakness for sad sacks and losers.’ She helps Elliot escape from the hospital, but once outside she leads him straight to a gang planning a million dollar heist. Does Felicia really want Elliot to protect her from the outfit’s psychotic leader, Stan the Man? Or is she just setting him up to take the hard fall?”
It doesn’t get much more noir than that. Until you start reading, and Hinkson grabs you by your lapels and hauls you even further down the hard, dark alleys of a story that just keeps punching, keeps getting darker, and tougher, and more surprising with every plot twist.
Hinkson’s protagonist, Elliot Stilling, is a sad sap, a guy who’s carrying around a 500-pound boulder on his back from his mysterious past. Whatever it is, it’s something so dark and terrible that it caused him to commit suicide. Hinkson deftly hides that dark something in Elliot’s past from the reader through Elliot’s own refusal to face it, or even talk about it. He gives us glimpses of a flashback, repeated a few times over the course of this short (173 pages) novel, but not enough to reveal what it is that haunts Elliot so, until the end. And when it hits, it hits you like a roundhouse in the gut that leaves you doubled over and gasping for breath.
This is great storytelling, great writing. Great noir.
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Recommended by: Greg
All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer (2015, Minotaur Books; 303 pages)
This is a fantastic spy novel, a complex story of betrayal that portrays the paranoia weaved in the world of espionage. It is somehow a classic spy novel which has not been written by John Le Carré! The author, Olen Steinhauer is a New York Times bestselling author of nine previous novels. He lives both in New York and Budapest, Hungary.
The plot goes like this: Six years ago in Vienna, terrorists took more than a hundred hostages, and the rescue attempt went terribly wrong. The CIA's Vienna station was witness to this tragedy, with agents assimilating facts from the ground and also from an agent on the inside. So when it all went wrong, the question had to be asked: Had their agent been compromised, and how?
This is also a story about love and passion between CIA case officers, and of course, about betrayal. The novel is intimate, cerebral and shocking. It is a great summer read.
Read a great article about the book here.
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Recommended by: Maite
CITY OF TINY LIGHTS -- a literary mystery that introduces a thoroughly original British detective with a one-of-a-kind voice
City of Tiny Lights by Patrick Neate (2006, Riverhead Trade; 336 pages)
A contemporary murder mystery set in the heart of London, this is the story of Tommy Akhtar, a London P.I. of Ugandan-Indian heritage with a fondness for Wild Turkey, Benson & Hedges, and the game of cricket. Akhtar is one-of-a-kind, his voice a rollicking blend of erudite thought delivered in delightfully crude slang. He's a hard-drinking veteran of the Mujahideen, a devoted son, sometime private investigator and sometime idol to the thug-lites of the ethnic motley of West London. Hired by a bewitching prostitute, he's to track down the whereabouts of her missing friend, last seen meeting a client in a local dive. But as the search heats up, Tommy's case takes a turn for the sinister, as he's drawn into a murder investigation and the dark side of both the establishment and those who plan to overthrow it.
This is a literary mystery that introduces a thoroughly original British detective, and a side of London that the mystery world has never seen.
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Recommended by: Greg
The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill (2005, Soho Crime; 257 pages)
Laos, 1975. The Communist Pathet Lao has taken over this former French colony. Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 72-year-old Paris-trained doctor, is appointed national coroner. Although he has no training for the job, there is no one else; the rest of the educated class has fled.
He is expected to come up with the answers the party wants. But crafty and charming Dr.Siri is immune to bureaucratic pressure. At his age, he reasons, what can they do to him? And he knows he cannot fail the dead who come into his care without risk of incurring their boundless displeasure. Eternity could be a long time to have the spirits mad at you...
The first book in the popular series, this book is humorous, well written, with well-developed characters and a touch of the supernatural. Great fun and a fast read.
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Recommended by: Ann
Medusa's Child by John J. Nance (1998, Pan Books; 576 pages)
Imagine being the captain of a Boeing 727 cruising at 10,000 feet and being told that your plane is carrying a thermonuclear monster that could devastate a vast area of the United State AND wipe out every computer chip on the continent, thus eliminating any and all traces of modern technology! Add to this, a group of rogue military officers who conspire to circumvent the President’s orders and seek to land the plane and secure the technology at any cost. Will the captain and his crew trust themselves, defy the specious presidential orders, fly directly into the path of a hurricane with only the narrowest margin of extra fuel, and dispose of the bomb themselves? Or, will they blindly follow the orders from a misguided sector of the government and plunge the civilization of the entire continent to back to a time prior to modern technology?
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Recommended by: Marilyn
THE LADY FROM ZAGREB -- Philip Kerr's Marlowesque Berlin detective Bernie Gunther returns in this dark mystery set during the height of World War II
The Lady From Zagreb by Philip Kerr (2015, G.P. Putnam's Sons; 434 pages)
A beautiful actress, a rising star of the giant German film company UFA, now controlled by the Propaganda Ministry. The very clever, very dangerous Propaganda Minister—close confidant of Hitler, an ambitious schemer and flagrant libertine. And Bernie Gunther, former Berlin homicide bull, now forced to do favors for Joseph Goebbels at the Propaganda Minister’s command. This time, the favor is personal. And this time, nothing is what it seems. Set down amid the killing fields of Ustashe-controlled Croatia, Bernie finds himself in a world of mindless brutality where everyone has a hidden agenda. Perfect territory for a true cynic whose instinct is to trust no one.
The 10th installment in Kerr's Bernie Gunther mysteries finds Bernie reluctantly serving Nazi masters, constantly striving to walk the narrow (and dangerous) path between following outrageous orders while maintaining some vestige of personal integrity. Bernie is the closest thing you're going to find to Philip Marlowe outside of Raymond Chandler's L.A., and, in The Lady From Zagreb, Kerr embraces the Chandler comparisons fully, even having one character dreaming about writing a novel called The Lady in the Lake. This is Kerr at his best, and darkest (there are a couple of passages so brutal they are hard to read). A very satisfying entry in the series.
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Recommended by: Greg
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (Houghton Mifflin, 1939; 234 pages)
When a dying millionaire hires Philip Marlowe to handle the blackmailer of one of his two troublesome daughters, Marlowe finds himself involved with more than extortion. Kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are hiding in the shadows of Chandler's first Marlowe mystery. Ross Macdonald famously wrote of Chandler: "Chandler [writes] like a slumming angel and invests the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence." There's never been another crime writer quite as brilliant as Chandler, or another detective quite like Marlowe.
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Recommended by: Greg