Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Review of Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr (Quercus, 2017)

1956. Bernie Gunther, former Berlin Kripo detective, is working as a concierge on the French Riviera. Gunther has a colourful past including working as a private investigator and for the upper echelons of the SD and SS; the latter under duress as he’s no Nazi. He’s also a wanted man for war crimes he didn’t commit. Ernst Mielke, the deputy head of the East German Stasi, wants Gunther to travel to Britain to murder a female agent that’s fallen out of favour. To make him compliant, Mielke’s brought along a small team led by Friedrich Korsch, an old Kripo colleague. Despite making the penalty for failing the mission clear, Bernie is reluctant to participate and loses his chaperones, making a break for West Germany. As he heads for the border, pursued by the Stasi and the French police who suspect him of a double murder, he recollects the last case he worked with his former Kripo colleague. That took place in early 1939 when he was asked by Martin Bormann and Reinhard Heydrich to investigate the shooting of a SS officer on the terrace of Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in Obersalzberg. Heydrich considers Gunther the best detective in Germany, and one not driven by political ideology. It’s unthinkable that a man can be killed on the Fuhrer’s terrace, especially a week before the leader’s fiftieth birthday, and Bormann gives Bernie one week to catch the killer or face dire consequences. Bernie soon discovers there are no shortage of suspects given the widespread corruption linked to the development in the area. The problem is identifying which snake in the grass is the murderer and to tread carefully enough that he doesn’t end up dead as well. However, full of methamphetamines to keep him at work night and day, Bernie has big feet and the drugs make him emboldened. 

Prussian Blue is the twelfth instalment of the Bernie Gunther series. As with the last few outings the story is split into related threads, one set in 1956, the other in 1939. In 1956 Bernie is on the run from the East Germany Stasi who want him to murder a rogue agent and the French police who want him for murder. While fleeing from the French Riviera towards West Germany, Bernie remembers the last case he worked with the man now in pursuit of him. That involved him searching for the murderer of a high-ranking SS officer serving at Hitler’s mountaintop retreat, conducting the investigation while trying to deal with several senior Nazis and widespread local corruption. As with the other tales, the undoubted draw of Prussian Blue is the acerbic, world weary lead character whose principles have slowly been eroded over the years, and the historical contextualisation. A bit like Forrest Gump, Bernie has a habit of rubbing shoulders with a range of high profile historical characters and real-world events. Both threads are engaging, but there’s an unevenness in the telling. The 1956 thread is quite linear and operates as a short story interleaved between episodes of the more developed, complex 1939 thread. In many ways the 1956 thread more acts as a framing for the 1939 story and a bridge to the next episode in Bernie’s tale, moving him back to Germany. While the 1939 tale is engaging and rich in historical detail it’s also somewhat drawn out, with quite a bit of unnecessary explication, and in my view would have benefitted from quite a bit of pruning. Overall, despite my quibbles, another enjoyable addition to the series.

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