Review: Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr
Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr is the 12th Bernie Gunther novel, where the former Berlin bull and unwilling SS officer Bernie Gunther’s cover is blown, so he must re-enter a cat-and-mouse game that continues to shadow his life a decade after Germany’s defeat in World War 2.
First, a moment to mourn Philip Kerr’s passing, just over a month ago. The world is poorer for the loss of this intelligent, deeply moral author. His legacy, however, remains in the form of a solid number of works, ranging from non-fiction to children’s literature. He is likely most widely known for his award-winning Bernie Gunther novels, of which Prussian Blue is the 12th in the series.
As the story opens, it is 1956, and Gunther is living in a sort of limbo on the French Riviera, which is not as pleasant as one might expect in the winter when the hotels close and leave men like him—ex-law enforcement with dubious papers—without gainful employment. But there is a ray of sunshine: his estranged wife has sent him a letter saying that she’s left Berlin and would like to see him again. It is not Elisabeth, however, who keeps their appointment but a man whom Gunther would rather never see again: Eric Mielke, the deputy head of Stasi, who only recently set Gunther up as the fall guy in an operation to protect a British asset. Gunther escaped with his life, but now Mielke wants him to eliminate the Stasi agent who links them to the operation, an Englishwoman with whom Gunther was briefly involved. Gunther knows that if he finishes the job, he’ll be next on the hit list himself, so he decides to take what he knows, as a former cop, to be the wisest course of action:
Running away is always a better plan than you think; just ask any criminal. It’s only police who will say that running away doesn’t solve anything; it certainly doesn’t solve crimes or make arrests, that’s for sure. Besides, running away was a much more appealing idea than poisoning some Englishwoman I’d once slept with, even if she was a bitch. I’ve got more than enough on my conscience as it is.
As Gunther goes on the lam across France, his thoughts return to the year 1939 and a case with odd parallels to his present plight. Back then, he had been a detective with the Kripo and one of the few men of integrity left in the national police department under the Nazi administration. It is this integrity that sees him sent to Berchtesgaden—Adolf Hitler’s mountain retreat and stronghold—to investigate the shooting death of a civil engineer. Karl Flex had been standing with several other men on a terrace when he was assassinated; none of the other men heard or saw anything until Flex fell down, quite dead. With only a week before Hitler himself arrives to celebrate his 50th birthday, the murderer must be found with a minimum of fuss.
General Reinhard Heydrich himself has selected Gunther to investigate—if only because Heydrich knows that Gunther cannot be corrupted by the political machinations on the mountain. Gunther selects an assistant to accompany him, not suspecting that 17 years later, this same man will be sent to track him down for the Stasi:
It was strange the way he’d entered my world again after all these years, and yet not strange at all, perhaps. If you live long enough you realize that everything that happens to us is all the same illusion, the same shit, the same celestial joke. Things don’t really end, they just stop for a while and they start up again, like a bad record. There are no new chapters in your book, there’s just the one long fairy story—the same stupid story we tell ourselves and which, mistakenly, we call life. Nothing is ever really over until we’re dead. And what could a man do who’d worked for the [Kripo] except carry on working for the same lousy department under the communists? Friedrich Korsch was a natural policeman. Such continuity made perfect sense to the communists; the Nazis had been good at law enforcement. And with a different book—Marx instead of Hitler—a slightly different uniform, and a new national anthem, “Risen from the Ruins,” everything could carry on as before. Hitler, Stalin, Ulbricht, Khrushchev—they were all the same, the same monsters from the neurological abyss we call our own subconscious.
Gunther is an understandably cynical man, and there are few who have earned that right as sincerely as he has. Bad enough to be a leftist trapped in the hellscape of a country whose fascist government is descending inexorably into the madness inherent at the heart of Nazism. But Gunther is also a passionate believer in the morality of justice and the necessary work of law enforcement, both values undermined by the hysterical cult of personality that has sprung up around Der Fuhrer’s every whim. Mr. Kerr describes in horrifying detail not only the criminal atrocities perpetrated by Hitler and his followers but also the psychological manipulations that allow monsters like these to gain and hold on to power.
Prussian Blue is a powerful reminder of how ordinary, even decent people can be induced to support evil. Painstakingly researched and breathtakingly crafted, this densely plotted novel isn’t afraid to draw parallels between fact and fiction, past and present. It is a remarkable novel that well deserves its Edgar nomination and a book that speaks volumes about its author’s commitment to freedom and reason.