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