I needed something to read while I waited for Robert Caro’s latest book on Lyndon Johnson to come out. My interest in Caro’s work had kicked into high gear when I read Charles McGrath’s piece about him in The New York Times Magazine. When I get like that, when I’m waiting for something great to land on the cart in the back of the store (Rebekah has a forty percent chance of getting the item recorded in the inventory before I’m tracking to the counter to pay for it), it’s almost impossible to satisfy me with another book in the interim. However, with his new novel, “Prague Fatale,” Phillip Kerr accomplished the feat. I settled down with his brilliant narrator, Bernie Gunther, and put the Caro book out of my mind.
Kerr has written several books about Gunther, but I started with “Prague Fatale” as a stand alone work. At no point did I feel that I had missed out on a joke or plotline from a previous novel.
With homicide investigator Gunther as a guide, the reader enters the doomed, atmospheric realm of Nazi Germany. Gunther, as it turns out, is not overly impressed with Hitler’s crew. In fact, the detective has grown so tired of the regime that he wakes up in the mornings thinking of suicide. To make matters even more unbearable, quality booze and cigarettes are in short supply. Then Gunther gets drawn into the web of the Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich, who is stationed in Prague. Heydrich orders Gunther to provide assassination protection while investigating the murder of another officer. Meanwhile, turncoats and spies are underfoot.
Gunther deals with this situation by richly antagonizing the Nazi officials who are under suspicion for the murder. He even goes so far as to provoke Heydrich. Is Gunther crazy? Does he want to get shot? Well, he could be talked into it...
Kerr mixes elements of an Agatha Christie story with elements of a Raymond Chandler story, and then adds a touch of improbable romance to complete the portrait. The novel explores the sense of futility that an individual experiences when caught in the clutches of a nasty regime. Nevertheless, because Gunther is such a fine narrator, it’s a pleasure to follow him through the maze, even though he has no way out.
Review by Todd Robins