Sunday, May 29, 2016

9. The Pale Criminal by Philip Kerr

I've been hunting down the original British versions of Philip Kerr's now classic Berlin Noir trilogy (or close enough that the first three have been reprinted in their own "Berlin Noir" entitled omnibus), since I discovered them at a great open air book market in Amsterdamn.  They only had the second and third and I thought it was a trilogy and so held off on buying them.  I've been looking for the first one ever since, to no avail.  I stumbled on a decent copy of the second one (Penguin, 1991) in pretty beat up condition with a fade spine, so I thought I could actually read it.  But again, I wanted to start with the first one, March Violets.  I was at my friend, paperback aficionado Hannibal Chew's recently and he had the above-mentioned omnibus and lent it to me, but of course I forgot to take it.  So I just decided to relax my stringent policies for this one case and started The Pale Criminal.

I was glad I did, because I jumped right into it.  I was a bit surprised by the tone at first.  It really is a straight-up detective mystery.  I was expecting something else, not sure what, but from the first page, The Pale Criminal follows all the tenets of the form.  The protagonist, Bernie Gunther, is the ex-cop loner with some sadness in his past and a dogged determination to do the right thing, no matter what it costs him.  He gets hired by an obese, wealthy woman to track down some blackmail letters showing her son to be a homosexual. 

After this traditional setup, things do veer into a deeper place, as Gunther gets picked up by the Gestapo for an interview with Heydrich himself, who reveals that there has been a string of serial killer like murders, the victims being blond, female teenagers, exemplars of Aryan youth.  I won't say anything more about the plot, but the storyline does open up and takes full advantage of the Nazi Germany setting.  The mystery is solid, but the portrayal of the Nazis in full power just before the invasion of the Sudetenland as seen by the eyes of a working stiff with some policy authority is what really makes this book resonate.  Nazi Germany and Hitler get thrown around a lot as internet memes and references to fascism, but whenever one is reminded of the actual reality of it, it is profoundly disturbing.  I am fortunate to have had a good high school education with a lot of emphasis on how the Nazis came to power as well as spending some time in college on it.  It really is something we should never forget, because humans unfortunately have an all to easy tendency to head down that road.