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Thursday, 15 February 2018

Book review - The Pale Criminal

‘It didn’t need much explaining. That’s the thing about being a detective: I catch on real fast.’ (p272)

Philip Kerr’s second Bernie Gunther novel The Pale Criminal was published in 1990. 

I read the first, March Violets (1989) in January 2016. [Glowing review here]

I ended that review by saying I was looking forward to reading #2 ‘soon’. So much for ‘soon’…! To reiterate, it’s most remiss of me to only be reading these books at this late juncture, when they’ve been on my shelf for quarter of a century!

Kerr exploded on the crime book scene with March Violets and has consistently produced best seller after best seller – to date there are 12 novels in this series; he has written standalone books too. He’s popular because he inhabits his character, a typical private eye with a wise-cracking jaundiced view of the world. But these books are more than PI novels; they’re set in Berlin before and after the Second World War. An inspired choice: Berlin is almost a living breathing character in itself. The research and detail - without being overdone - provide believability.

March Violets was set at the time of the Berlin Olympics, 1936. The Pale Criminal jumps to 1938 (for an historical reason).

Gunther used to work in the police but has since gone private.

‘My business doesn’t exactly suit those who are disposed to be neat. Being a private investigator leaves you holding more loose ends than a blind carpet-weaver.’ (p246)

Obergruppenfuhrer Heydrich tends to use Gunther from time to time and this second foray is no exception. Ironically, Heydrich has got wind of secret plans for a pogrom against the Jews; he’s more concerned about the cost to German insurance companies than the fate of the citizens of that race, so he wants Gunther to stymie the plot.

Meanwhile, Gunther is investigating the brutal murders of Aryan girls; not for the squeamish. There’s a definite link, it seems between the deaths and the pogrom plot.

Taut and gripping, and steeped in period detail, the book races along. Complete with repulsive and intriguing characters:

‘Certainly time had stood still with his prognathous features – somewhere around one million years BC. Tanker could not have looked less civilized than if he had been wearing the skin of a sabre-toothed tiger.’ (p117)

And the plot neatly chimes with a terrible real historic event.

The book title fittingly comes from a phrase in a Nietzsche quotation.


[Interestingly, the third book in the series is set in 1947. Some other later books jump back to the early 1940s. I’m not sure which way to jump in reading more – go for the publishing sequence or the chronological timeline. It probably doesn’t matter.]

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