Nancy McKibben's Reviews > Prague Fatale

Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr
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bookshelves: historical-fiction, mystery, suspense, reviewed, world-war-2

Prague Fatale
By Philip Kerr

I like fiction set in and around World War II (as long as it’s not mostly about battles) and have long been a fan of novelist Alan Furst. Philip Kerr also sets his novels in that time period, but on the other side of the Maginot Line, as it were; his protagonist, Bernie Gunther, is an honest German police detective living in Berlin. The premise is fascinating to me: what reader hasn’t wondered how he would have reacted to Nazism and Hitler? Through Gunther, the reader finds out just how much sacrifice an honest life requires.

In Prague Fatale, Gunther has just returned from an assignment at the Eastern front, so sickened by the mass executions he has witnessed (and, the reader thinks, has either taken part in or assented to, although we don’t have details) that he seriously considers and reconsiders suicide.

While investigating the murder of a foreign worker, he is told to join the new Reichsprotector of Bohemia, General Reinhard Heydrich, nicknamed “the Hangman”, at a conclave of Nazi higher-ups. Although the stated purpose for Gunther’s presence is to find an assassin targeting Heydrich among the guests, the murder of an adjutant soon convinces Gunther that there is a more sinister motive afoot.

The murder in itself could have fueled a mystery novel, as it is one of those locked-room puzzles, but intrigue and espionage are rampant everywhere. General Heydrich values Gunther’s brutal honesty because most of his staff are sycophants too frightened to speak the truth to him. But speaking the truth in Nazi Germany is a risky business, even when a superior requests it.

Gunther has foolishly (in retrospect) allowed his most recent romantic liaison to accompany him to Prague, where there is an active wartime resistance. He is in love with Arienne, although he does not entirely trust her. I can reveal no more of the plot. But there is also plenty of atmosphere, including wonderfully detailed descriptions of wartime Berlin:
There was very little beer and often none at all. . . The sour, brown, brackish water that we nursed bitterly in our glasses reminded me most of the liquid-filled shell holes and still pools of no-man’s-land in which, sometimes, we had been obliged to take cover. For a Berliner, that really was a misfortune. Spirits were impossible to come by, and all of this meant that it was almost impossible to get drunk and escape from oneself, which, late at night, often left me cleaning my pistol. . .

. . .German munitions were always good; I could testify to the continuing excellence of ammunition and the weapons that fired it. But everything else was broken or second-rate or substitute or closed or unavailable or in short supply. And tempers, like rations, were in the shortest supply of all. The cross-looking black bear on our proud city’s coat of arms began to look like a typical Berliner, growling at a fellow passenger on the S-Bahn, roaring at an indifferent butcher as he gave you only half of the bacon your card said you were entitled to, or threatening a neighbor in your building with some Party big shot who would come and fix him good.
A bonus is that a number of the characters were real people and the situations in the novel are historical events. Heydrich, for instance, was assassinated by a Czech national, as happens in the book (and we learn this on the first page, so I haven’t given away anything.)

The best way to experience a war, I’m sure, is second-hand, and Kerr gives us a means of seeing it through German eyes. It’s a dark vision, but fortunately Gunther has a sense of humor that allows us to read on and experience enough of it to know it’s something we would never want. (However, I do want more of Bernie Gunther, and there are an additional seven novels available.)

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Reading Progress

July 21, 2013 – Started Reading
July 22, 2013 – Finished Reading
July 23, 2013 – Shelved as: suspense
July 23, 2013 – Shelved
July 23, 2013 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
July 23, 2013 – Shelved as: mystery
July 23, 2013 – Shelved as: reviewed
August 11, 2013 – Shelved as: world-war-2

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