The Pale Criminal by Philip Kerr – It is 1938 and a time of great apprehension in Germany as Hitler makes demands with regard to the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. War looks imminent as the Czechs resist. Beyond the Nazi leadership there is no enthusiasm for war. I would say it is a time of great tension in Germany but every day is a day of great tension under the Nazi regime. Citizens live in fear of running a foul of the Gestapo.
Bernie Gunther has prospered since March Violets. Business, especially searching for missing Jews, is strong. He has added a partner in Bruno Stahlecker, a fellow former police officer.
Early in the book Bernie is retained by a wealthy publisher, Frau Lange. She is being blackmailed over correspondence between her son, Reinhard, and Dr. Lanz Kindermann. They have had a homosexual relationship. Should the authorities receive the letters the writers are subject to imprisonment under S. 175 of the Criminal Code as moral deviants.
Bernie looks at the relationships of Reinhard to see who might have been able to gain access to the letters. The blackmailer has already received thousands of marks from Frau Lange.
As he proceeds with the investigation Bernie gets an offer he cannot refuse. He is called to a meeting with Reinhard Heydrich, a confident of Hitler and a high ranking member of the SS.
There have been four blonde Aryan teenage girls abducted, sexually assaulted and slain by having their throats cut while they are hanging upside down.
The regular police have made no progress in actually identifying the killer. They have a dubious suspect in custody and would be quite content to have him condemned as the killer.
Heydrich is not satisfied with simply having someone convicted and executed. He knows that more murders will occur until they find the real killer. Heydrich is concerned about the German family.
He tells Bernie:
'The new Germany,' he said, 'is all about arresting the decline of
the family, you know, and establishing a national community of
blood. Things are changing. For instance, there are now only
22,787 tramps in Germany, 5,500 fewer than at the start of the
year. There are more marriages, more births and half as many
divorces. You might well ask me why the family is so important
to the Party. Well, I'll tell you. Children. The better our children,
the better the future for Germany. So when something threatens
those children, then we had better act quickly.
He wants Bernie to return to the police to find the serial killer. Heydrich is not confident his police force of politically correct officers (a much different use of the term from today) can solve the crimes.
Heydrich wants Bernie as an experienced investigator who has "no racial or political axe to grind".
While Bernie is reluctant to return he has no choice if he wants to stay in Germany. Heydrich can casually destroy him. Bernie accepts the offer but insists upon being given the rank of Kommissar, far above his former detective status.
In the context of Nazi Germany choosing to work for the State sets a man on a perilous course. What will be the next choice and the next choice and .....?
Bernie awkwardly finds himself with the fearsome authority of the Nazi state. There are no limits to his investigation beyond connections with the Nazi elite and even with the men at the top he can discreetly pursue issues.
Reasonable cause is not needed. Torture is the preferred method of interrogation. Threats of concentration camp to uncooperative witnesses are readily made.
Bernie already has a rough edge to his character. He speaks to the mother of a missing girl looking for some sympathy:
'Whatever must you think of me, Kommissar?' she said. 'My
daughter is missing, probably murdered, and here I am spending
money as if I hadn't a care in the world. You must think me a
heartless sort of woman'.
'I don't think anything of the kind,' I said, and started telling her
how people dealt with these things in different ways, and that if
a bit of shopping helped to take her mind off her daughter's
disappearance for a couple of hours then that was perfectly all
right, and nobody could blame her.
While Bernie wants to conduct a lawful investigation he is part of the Nazi police state. It is inevitable he will be tainted.
The motivation for the serial killings is as chilling as any I can recall in reading mysteries.
The book raises the troubling question of what does a man of integrity do when the ends justify the means is the rule of law in Nazi Germany.
The Pale Criminal, the second book in the Berlin Noir trilogy is definitely dark. At the same time the book is compelling readable. Kerr does a remarkable job of melding the murder mystery with the historic events of the day. While I do not normally read three books in a row by an author I have already started the third, A German Requiem.
- Bill Selnes
- Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
- I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.