I’m a sucker for Bernie Gunther thrillers (my reviews are here to prove it). By exception to my own habits, I am reading them (nearly) in order, so I already have the next one lined up (A Man without breath), except I might at least wait until fall or winter, not to go on a Gunther binge.
I can’t decently tell you much about the plot, because the whole pleasure lies in the twists and surprises and the clever cliffhangers. Let’s just say that Gunther is summoned to Prague by his old boss, Heydrich, who can’t be refused anything as he’s now the governor of Bohemia and Moravia (part of the Nazi Reich, as the book is set in 1941). Soon enough a dead body turns up, except it’s not one from the mass murders of Jews, nor any dead soldier on the Russian front, nor a Czech resistance fighter. The murder takes place inside a closed room in Heydrich’s villa, making several tongue-in-cheek references to Agatha Christie’s classic mysteries. But instead of Miss Marple, Bernie Gunther gets to ask the questions, and of course he doesn’t do it politely around a dainty cup of tea (certainly rationed by this time).
Part of the pleasure (?) of reading a Philip Kerr thriller is to be immersed in the day-to-day life of Germans under the Nazi regime. We’re inside Bernie Gunther’s head (with some insight, because he’s telling it from the future), so the core question is to see how a moral individual (assuming we choose to believe that Gunther is sincere about his democratic, liberal sympathies) could live (read: stay alive) in a totalitarian state. The result is not black and white, and many of Gunther’s choices are dark grey, because he’s not heroic to the point of being suicidal.
I didn’t want to just gulp down the story and move on. After all, I have been reading many books related to this period lately, so I checked on the only reference I keep at home about Nazism: Ian Kershaw’s opus: Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation (1985), a book far too deep and theoretical for me to read from cover to cover. Instead, I read the chapter on German society together with Kerr, and it proved fascinating.
Kershaw highlights the work of Martin Broszat in his Bavaria Project, where (from my understanding) a bunch of historians went through lots of data about the daily lives and opinions of people, to see if they adhered to Nazism, and how much they dared to dissent (cue: very little). He stresses that a lot of people weren’t hard-core Nazi, but rather helpless and subdued, or even indifferent. The extent of their dissent was largely minimalist, and in many cases they were rather passive accomplices.
Gunther rather embodies this helplessness, as he can sometimes find solutions to avoid some situations (like killing civilians or framing a suspect for the sake of Nazi politics), but he is a cop (and a soldier sometimes), and there’s no way he remains pure and innocent all the way through. He may bend some rules, but he’s a flawed anti-hero. Which makes his story all the more interesting.