Mysterious Book Report No. 90

by John Dwaine McKenna

All my life, I’ve had a fascination with and a thirst for knowledge of the great conflagration and tragedy known as World War II.  Could be it’s because I was born just a year after the end of it . . . and perhaps because my father and most of his generation, the fathers of friends and schoolmates were veterans of it, that I grew up with constant reminders of the war.  It’s not the most recent war, but it’s the last one that the United   States fought to win, no holds barred, no quarter asked or given, until the unconditional surrender of all of the belligerents opposing the U.S. and it’s allies.  And maybe the reason World War II holds such fascination for many of us is because somewhere, back in the most antediluvian corners of our subconscious brains, we’re afraid history might repeat itself.  War on a world-wide scale might happen again . . . and we may even be in the preliminary stages right now.  But for whatever reason, I’ve always read anything having to do with WW II that I could put my hands on.  This week’s MBR No. 90 Prague Fatale, (Marion Wood Putnam, $26.95, 400 pages, ISB 978-03969-15902-2) by Phillip Kerr is such a book.  It’s historical fiction, written from the point of view of Bernie Gunther, a Berlin homicide investigator.  It’s 1941, America hasn’t yet entered the war, and commisar Bernhard Gunther, a twenty-year veteran detective in the Berlin police investigative unit know as Kripo, has just returned to Berlin from the eastern front.  Sick and disillusioned at what he saw and was forced to do there, he finds that the police department has been co-opted by the Nazi’s . . . he’s contemplating suicide as the novel begins.

Bernie is hunting a killer who attacks his female victims at railway stations when he thwarts an apparent assault and rape in progress.  He chases the perpetrator and sees him collide with a taxi cab before losing him in the dark.  Helping the victim, he’s drawn into an affair with her that deepens with each chapter . . . but also draws him ever-deeper into the hunt for Czech terrorists known as ‘the three kings.’  But Kripo is under the control of Nazi party member and SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the newly named Reichsprotector of Bohemia, which includes all of Austria and Czechoslovakia, and is headquartered in the city of Prague.  Convinced that he’s targeted for assassination, Heydrich plucks Bernie Gunther from Berlin, bringing him to Prague to serve as his personal bodyguard.  The troubled
detective finds himself surrounded by the top echelons of the German high command, each of whom has personal influence with the highest levels of the Nazi leadership, as well as personal disputes with each other.  When a murder occurs on the first night he arrives, everyone is suspect.

This novel is so full of historic characters, intrigue, suspense, danger and accurate period detail that it’s impossible to comment on all of them in the allocated space of this column, but they’re all woven together so well, with such deftness, that Prague Fatale is one of the best World War II novels to come along in a long, long time.  If you like intricate, well-crated and thought provoking books, you don’t want to miss this one.  Yeah, it’s that good!

Have you been down to your local library yet?  Have a library card? That’s great, because for those of you who choose to read Prague Fatale and want to know what is so troubling about duty in the eastern provinces that would leave hard-boiled homicide detective contemplating suicide, I recommend the following: Ordinary Men, Reserve Police Battalion 101 and The Final Solution in Poland by Christopher Browning.  It’s non-fiction that reads like a Cormac McCarthy or Stephen King horror novel.  I read it for Holocaust remembrance month five years ago and I still think about it.  Ask a librarian to request it from interlibrary loan.  It’s not for the squeamish

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–JDM