Book review: Prussian Blue
How do you fight crime and solve murders when the people you are working for are in fact criminals and murderers?
That is the dilemma faced by Bernie Gunther, a homicide detective working in Nazi Germany.
Gunther is the creation of writer Philip Kerr, and has appeared in 12 novels to date.
The most recent is Prussian Blue which is set, primarily in 1939, a few months before the start of World War Two and finds Gunther having to investigate a murder in Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s inner sanctum. In doing so, he uncovers a rat’s nest of corruption and comes into contact with a number of elite Nazis.
The story is told as a flashback by Gunther, who in 1956, is on the run from the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police force. They want Gunther to work for them and if he won’t, they want him dead. The agent heading the pursuit is an ex-cop who Gunther worked with on the 1939 case.
Kerr adroitly weaves the two tales together and in doing so provides insights on the inner workings of the Nazi regime and the odious characters who populated it. Chief among these in Prussian Blue is Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary.
Bormann is responsible for managing the building of Berchtesgaden and he wants it completed in time for Hitler’s 50th birthday. He is pressuring Gunther to quickly and quietly solve the murder of a civil engineer who was shot dead by a sniper on the balcony of Hitler’s private residence. Bormann fears that if Hitler learns of the murder he will be unwilling to come to Berchtesgaden out of concern for his personal safety. That would have dire consequences for Bormann’s political position which rests on controlling access to Hitler.
As Gunther investigates the murder he uncovers a web of illegal activities. Chief among these is the sale of amphetamines. It seems that these were very popular with the Nazis who used them freely and provided them to the workers at Berchtesgaden so that they could work at a faster rate.
At the same time, Gunther is on the run in 1956, trying to make his way from the south of France to West Germany where he thinks he might be safe. To do this Gunther must use all his old police skills in order to avoid both the Stasi and the French police who suspect him of a double homicide.
Bernie Gunther is a character in the tradition of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Surrounded by corruption he struggles to stick to a personal moral code.
He is world weary and cynical but still clings to the idea that in the face of so much violence and corruption it is still possible to try and do the right thing even if it means putting yourself in danger.
Prussian Blue is fast paced and Kerr is adept at bringing to life figures from the past who you would much rather meet on the page than in person.
Basil Guinane is a recently retired associate dean of the School of Media Studies at Humber college, a former librarian and an avid reader.