Sunday, November 10, 2013

Prague Fatale

Philip Kerr, will you ever not deliver?  How do I love your Bernie Gunther novels, let me count the ways.

Prague Fatale is a great read for several reasons, but let's start with language.  Kerr has a deft touch with noir-speak, and he pours on the lingo - bulls and polenta for cops and police, cauliflower for the officers, etc. - but Our Hero Bernie Gunther is not entirely hard-boiled.  His weakness, if you want to call it that, in the world of the Nazis is that he is no Nazi, and he has nothing good to say about them.  An earlier novel in the series mentioned Gunther's elation when Germany conquered France, hoping for a return to the Germany he cared about, full of national pride in strong deeds.  But his transfer to the Eastern Front in 1941, and terrible duties with Einsatzgruppen quickly erase any Teutonic pride, leaving him in a suicide-contemplating funk that drifts into this story.  Gunther is a survivor, despite himself, and perhaps it is his story-telling talent (because that is always the format of these stories, Gunther telling - us, the Americans, the gal on the next bar stool - his story) and dark humor that keep him alive.  Consider this example.  Gunther is just meeting Kurt Kahlo, who will be his no. 2 in Prague.
"The man who spoke had a head as big as a stonemason's bucket, but the face carved on the front of it was small, like a child's.  The eyes were cold and hard, even a little sad, but the mouth was a vicious tear."  (164)  Despite Gunther's unfavorable first impression, he and Kahlo find much common ground in their investigative styles, and develop a strong respect for one another.  My favorite example of noir-speak from the whole book describes Kahlo during a good-cop/bad-cop routine.
"Kahlo folded his arms, and looked sad, as if disappointed that he couldn't obey the order.  I didn't doubt that he was more than equal to the task of dealing with Kluckholm if the third adjutant decided to try and get tough with him.  Khalo looked tougher. Khalo would have looked tough in a bath full of Turkish wrestlers."  (303)

I find myself reaching for reference materials when I read Kerr's stories, just to get the full picture about all the characters.  I think that's why these stick in my brain for a few days after reading them.  Kerr manages that rare feat of placing fictional characters and stories in historical settings without the whole thing feeling contrived.  This must be due to very careful research, and while I'm generally suspicious of those who immerse themselves in details of uniform and rank (esp. of the Nazi regime) here it just works draw the reader in.  In Prague Fatale, Gunther has been summoned to the Czech residence of Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security (including the Gestapo) and Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia (meaning the man in charge in Czechoslovakia).   Heydrich is convinced there is an assassination plot being formulated against him, by one of his inner circle. And while he knows that Gunther's politics are not exactly up to Nazi standard, he likes the cop's investigative streetsmarts, and recognizes that they are the only way to get under the field-gray skins of the sycophants around him.  When another murder happens at the house, well of course it is convenient that Gunther is there to solve it.  Over the course of that investigation, Gunther learns more than he wants to about the infighting and backstabbing and arrogance and stupidity of most members of this very elite group of Nazi leaders.  I didn't research all of them, but the deeply-layered depiction of Heydrich and the Czech milieu suggest that there is a huge amount of historical legwork backing up this group portrait

I've said before that I thought Kerr's post-Berlin Noir works were a little uneven - I was particularly not wild about the one in Argentina - but he is back in tight World War II form with Prague Fatale.  And that's the final piece that makes this story work so well.  In many ways it is a classic country-house murder mystery, right down to the body-in-a-locked-room conceit and the group of characters, one of whom is . . . a murderer!  Heydrich is even reading Agatha Christie during this story!  But this permits Kerr to display Gunther's impressive investigative skills, as well as his own character writing, through a series of interviews with each of the guests, which, as everyone knows, is what you do when you find a dead body in a locked room in a country house full of weekend guests.  Unlike the chronologically ambitious but challenging plot of Field Gray, we're all pretty much in real time here.  It works to keep the story focused, but you will not escape the larger context of the Nazi's brutal regime in Czechoslovakia, the courage of the resistance, and the omnipresent Kerr/Gunther theme of the price of survival in particularly nasty and brutish world.

I always like a postscript - you know, what happened afterwards to everyone - and Kerr delivers one here that hangs around like a historical earworm.  You think you're kind of immune to Nazi nastiness, but you know, you never really are.

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