Longlisted for the 2018 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction
Where was I? In London, courtesy of a German thriller. I can’t resist following that up with a British thriller set in the capital of Hitler’s Germany. Not Berlin, which was the merely the official capital at that time, but Berchtesgaden, deep in the Bavarian Alps, the de facto administrative capital of Germany in 1939.
Hitler’s 50th birthday approaches and Martin Bormann is pushing through the final phase of the construction of the Führer’s birthday present. Perched on top of the Kehlstein, this building, better known in English-speaking countries as the Eagle’s Nest, will cost some 30 million Reichmarks to build (€150 million!!!!) Houses in the neighbouring area have been subject to compulsory purchase order. The surrounding countryside has been cordoned off and the local hunting rights rescinded. The Kehlsteinhaus is to be a place of relaxation and a safe haven for Hitler and the higher eschelons of the Nazi Party. Trouble is a sniper takes out of the party bigwigs as he is standing on the terrace.
So Heydrich sends Bernie Gunther to investigate. Gunther is the non-party detective, who continues to believe in the power of solid detective work despite … well, despite everything really. It is a desperate attempt to hold onto his heavily-compromised integrity, even if he really is Heydrich’s puppet and dances to his master’s tune. Still Heydrich’s patronage – if I may call it that – affords him a measure of protection and Gunther dares to go where others dare not. But these are thin lines he’s walking, and the man from from Berlin, a Prussian, is never going to win a popularity contest in Nazi Bavaria. When the psychopathic Nazi generals start playing power games among themselves, and Gunther discovers racqueteering within the Nazi party on an unimaginable scale, he finds there’s also a target on his back.
Prussian Blue is Bernie Gunther’s 12th outing. It started with him leaving the police force in the early years of the Nazi regime. The series timeline has now progressed to 1956, which is where Prussian Blue begins. Bernie is on the French Riviera, in hiding, having left a living loose end on his previous mission. But his now East German paymasters find him and press him back into service. He is to complete the job. However, he manages to give them the slip and flees across France, heading back to the German border, where he hopes to disappear.
It is during this flight across France that memories of the Berchtesgaden case resurface, and there are a number of connections that provide for a skillful interweaving of the two narratives. The reappearance of a Nazi double-crosser, for instance. By far my favourite, however, was the mirroring. In 1956 Bernie Gunther flees west to east. In 1939 the main suspect flees east to west. In both instances, the journeys converge in the Saarland, in the Schlossberg Caves in Homburg.
SThe 1956 narrative provides another perspective on Gunther’s character. It’s too easy to sympathise with him during the Nazi era as he wriggles his way to survival. But the fact remains that he’s not as clean as his self-justifications portray. He is hard-boiled. He can be ruthless. He would argue, of necessity. Nevertheless. I find him a morally ambiguous character, even if I’m always gunning for him.
Gunther’s dilemma is brilliantly encapsulated in the epigraph. As Caspar David Friedrich wrote:
I am not so weak as to submit to the demands of the age when they go against my convictions. I spin a cocoon around myself; let others do the same. I shall leave it to time to show what will come of it: a brilliant butterfly or maggot,
That’s what makes Kerr’s series so fascinating. Gunther’s character and an intimate knowledge of German society and culture. Prussian Blue has countless intertextual references to German literature, woven lightly throughout. They won’t slow the pace for those reading this purely as a thriller, but they did enrich the experience for me.
I’ve read about 2/3rds of the series, which does have peaks and thoughs. Prussian Blue, for me, is definitely up there with the best, and not simply because of its setting high up on the Obersalzberg. This was, however, a reading tinged with sadness. Philip Kerr died on 23.03.2018 at the age of 62. Solace of a kind is to be found, though, in that his most famous character, Bernie Gunther, will ensure his literary reputation lives on for years to come.