Saturday, 31 August 2013

Philip Kerr: Prague Fatale

I've complained in the past about the way that the second coming of Bernie Gunther jumps around too much in time, and that the links between his post war life on the run and his pre-war experiences strain the limits of credible coincidence. I'm confident that, like most of my subjects, Kerr doesn't scrutinise my every word with the care and attention of a man reading the IKEA instructions for defusing a nuclear bomb chained to his own right ankle, but obviously someone had a word with him about the time structures, and Prague Fatale displays a comforting respect for the Aristotelian unities of time and place. Coincidence continues to be a serious problem. But that's not the weirdest thing about the book.

In many ways the most interesting thing Reinhard Heydrich ever did was to get himself assassinated just when he was poised to become - perhaps - a heck of a big deal in the Third Reich. Based on what he'd done to get himself to the position of Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, Heydrich may have been one of the few people who could possibly have made World War Two even worse than it turned out to be; this was the man Hitler called "the man with the iron heart". Everything you need to know about what might have come next is summed up in the warm and cosy decision to name the first phase of the Final Solution Operation Reinhard in his honour, what with him having chaired the Wannsee Conference and everything (the second most interesting thing he did, I suppose). His assassination is one of the great nazi-centric what-ifs of the war, along with the musing over what might have happened if Hess had had any kind of plan when he jumped out of that plane into England. 

Characteristically, Kerr goes right ahead and treats the assassination of Heydrich as an epilog. It's always been a big part of the Guntherian schtick that he's the Zelig on the edges of the small things which happened in nazi era., and you almost have to admire Kerr for passing up the opportunity to Zelig Operation Anthropoid. Instead of putting the focus on the single most dramatic event of Heydrich's life, Kerr opts to give Bernie a locked room mystery to solve in Heydrich's commandeered residence, six months before the assassination. He packs the house with Heydrich's associates and then has one of his adjutants fetch up dead in a locked bedroom, apparently shot but with no gun in the room. Gunther spends the remainder of the book blustering at various unedifying nazis as he tries to figure out who might have done and it and why. It's like horrible nazi-fied version of every Poirot book ever, a parallel hammered home with sledgehammer subtlety when Heydrich announces himself to be a fan of Agatha Christie.

Mind you, none of this happens until the reader is well into the book; the first third or so are devoted to Bernie's investigation of an apparently random murder of a railway worker and his growing infatuation with a night club hostess; readers of any other Gunther book will not need to reach for the smelling salts when it becomes clear that all of these things feed back into the plot of the main event, even though there's really no way in which they should. While the main event turns out to have been a well-considered manipulation of Gunther's well known dogged insubordination for higher ends, that just makes it even more ridiculous that the other baggage would have tied into it. 

I'm now wonderfully behind on the whole Gunther thing, since A Man Without Breath has been out for ages and I haven't chased it down. I got Prague Fatale because it was in a pile of discounted books in Chapters, and I suspect that I will do the same for the next one; they're not bad books, they're just not essential reading.

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