A classy locked-room detective story

2012-02-15 00:00

BERNIE Gunther is back, and that has to be good news. Though I’m beginning to wish that someone, somewhere (and there’s a Bernie Gunther fan page on the Internet where surely a Gunther geek could be at work) would produce a ­chronology for the Berlin detective. We’ve had him in thirties Berlin; in the horror of war; in Vienna and now Prague; and in fifties Argentina and Cuba. It’s getting hard to remember what happened to him where.

This time, however, Bernie is rooted in 1941 and 1942, in an ­unusually linear narrative. He has ­returned from the Eastern Front, sated with horrors and deeply ­depressed by his role in them. As ­ever, Bernie is flawed, determined, and struggling to hang onto the shreds of his humanity in a world gone mad.

A murder in Berlin offers him a chance to do what he does best — detect — but it seems he is only ­expected to go through the motions.

Trouble is, the motions lead him into an entanglement with a good-time girl, and then back to his nemesis, Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most evil of the Nazi top brass and historically the architect of the ­“final solution”. Heydrich is in Prague, and summons Bernie to his side, ostensibly to look after his security. And then one of his adjutants is murdered, and with Bernie on hand in a house full of ­senior Nazis, he gets the poisoned chalice of finding out who is a murderer. Of course, they all are, but that’s not the point.

On the one hand, Prague Fatale is a classy locked-room detective story, but it is also a chilling ­re­minder of the violence and horrors the Nazis perpetrated. And, ­perhaps because the plotting this time round, while still meticulous, is more straightforward than in many of Kerr’s earlier Gunther books, entertainment and evil, which Kerr ­details with relish, sit a little uncomfortably together. It made this ­reader a touch squeamish about enjoying it all so much.

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