Our book today is a gutsy historical thriller from 2011 called Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr, the eighth novel featuring his scuffed and downtrodden detective – and reluctant SS member – Bernie Gunther, prague fatalesolving crimes and trying to keep his morals clean in WWII-era Germany. In this particular installment, he’s been summoned to Prague by Reinhard Heydrich, the newly-installed Reichsprotector of what was once Czechoslovakia, who worries that his new prominence may end up attracting the kind of trouble he know our hero Bernie understands with deep, unwilling insight. Bernie obeys because he has no choice – he hates the stupidity and venality of the Nazis, but he’s also a pragmatist and in several key ways a coward. He’s also just about the least believable Lothario in all of crime fiction, and sultry woman’s name in this case is Arianne.

I first encountered Kerr’s Bernie Gunther twenty-five years ago when I read Berlin Noir, an omnibus containing the first three novellas featuring the character, and although I liked some of the descriptions, the novellas themselves made no deep impression on me. I could sense Kerr’s intelligence easily on the page – easily enough for me to recommend the omnibus to bookstore customers who were looking for something to satisfy their Dashiell Hammett sweet-tooth – but I didn’t think much of the books themselves, and I didn’t think about poor down-on-his-luck Bernie Gunther at all once I’d put Berlin Noir aside.

Both the author and the character came rushing back to me only comparatively recently due to one of the best possible reasons: they were recommended to me, and not by just anybody, although that would be sweet enough, but by one of my colleagues right here at Open Letters Monthly: our indefatigable mystery columnist Irma Heldman, it turns out, has always been a big fan of Philip Kerr. As I was doing my own thing at OLM, I couldn’t help but notice Irma taking every opportunity to praise the Bernie Gunther series enthusiastically, starting with 2009’s stylish reprint of 2006’s The One from the Other, and it all reminded me of the good things I enjoyed about Berlin Noir, to which this book was a long-awaited sequel. Back in 2009 Open Letters had only been in existence for a couple of years, but already by that point I’d been pleased by some of Irma’s recommendations, so I read The One from the Other and A Quiet Flame and realized immediately that Kerr is that rare bird among genre authors: somebody who gets more readable when he’s got more elbow-room. I thought they were terrific, much better than the stories on offer in Berlin Noir, and after that I tried never to miss a Kerr new release.

And yet, I somehow missed Prague Fatale in 2011, so I was delighted to find a copy for 50 cents – I burned right through this multi-layered and yet manifestly predictable story, in which Kerr sets an old-fashioned locked-door mystery inside an atmospheric war novel about the perils and tensions of occupied Prague, which is described over and over again with very dark, sharp energy:

To see Prague in the autumn of 1941 was to see a crown of thorns with extra points, as painted by Lucas Cranach. A city of church spires it certainly was. Even the spires had smaller spires of their own, the way little carrots sometimes grow bigger ones. These lent the unfeasibly tall Bohemian capital an unexpectedly sharp, jagged feel. Everywhere you looked it was like seeing a Swiss halberd in an umbrella stand. This sense of medieval discomfort was accentuated by the city’s omnipresent statuary. All over Prague there were statues of Jesuit bishops spearing pagans, heavily muscled Titans stabbing each other with swords, agonized Christian saints horribly martyred, or ferocious wild animals tearing each other to pieces. To that extent Prague appeared to suit the cruelty and violence of the Nazis in a way Berlin never did. The Nazis seemed to belong here – especially the tall, spindly figure of Heydrich, whose austere, pale features brought to mind the face of a flayed-alive saint.

Of course, some of the author’s ticks reminded me of everything I’d disliked in the pages of Berlin pragueukNoir, foremost being the incredibly hokey dialogue Kerr sometimes puts in Bernie’s mouth – dialogue that says nothing so clearly as that its speaker knows he’s in a hard-boiled detective novel:

“These are the times we live in, I’m afraid. All sorts of things make me suspicious, angel. Two aces in a row. Double sixes. A sure thing for the state lottery. A kind word or a compliment. Venus rising from the sea. I’m the kind of Fritz who’s apt to look for a maker’s mark on the scallop shell.”

It bothered me a bit this time around, even with Irma’s recommendations ringing in my ears. That’s the tricky thing about book recommendations: one size doesn’t fit all, and you can sometimes gain more insight into the recommender than the recommended. Prague Fatale, for example, reminded me on a few occasions of something I’ve noticed from ten years of reading her columns: Irma is often willing to overlook a great deal if an author will give her genuinely snappy prose. And it reminded me that I will too, so everything worked out just fine! Heydrich has been a figure of fascination for me since I read Edouard Callic’s biography of him back in the 1980s (and the English-language translation of Laurent Binet’s book about him back in 2012), and I loved Kerr’s portrayal of him, ice-cold and yet somehow also creepily magnetic, the star of the novel even though Bernie secretly loathes him.

Once I finished Prague Fatale, I considered creating a bookshelf here at Hyde Cottage dedicated to the books or authors I’ve taken up solely due to the recommendations or prodding of fellow Open Letters people. I may still do it, although the shelf would have to be fairly wide …

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