Book review – The Pale Criminal

I recently read the first of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, March Violets.  I enjoyed it enough (see my review) to jump into the second of the so-called Berlin Trilogy, The Pale Criminal (1990).

March Violets saw us in the 1936 Berlin.  This installment finds us in the same territory but in 1938.  Things have moved on.  The persecution of Jews has become far more commonplace, the annexation of parts of the former Czechoslovakia is in the offing under the Munich Agreement (or ‘Munich Betrayal’), and Bernie Gunther has a new partner and another crime to solve.

A spate of murders of young German girls, and the Berlin police’s inability to find the perpetrator, results in Bernie Gunther being press-ganged into rejoining the constabulary by none other than Reinhard Heydrich.  Heydrich is concerned about a general panic and any perception that he may not be able to keep order.  He therefore wants Germany’s finest detective on the case.  Gunther has to firstly finish off a current case involving the blackmail of a publishing magnate, who’s received letters which reveal her son is homosexual – something that will find you in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany.  Having cleared his desk, Gunther can get on with his new role as Kriminalkommissar.

The murders of young fair-haired and blue-eyed girls have a ritualistic element and, to make matters worse, a sensationalist newspaper has tried to link this ritual to Jews.  Gunther isn’t so sure and suspects foul play, not least as the prime (Jewish) suspect was incarcerated while another murder was committed.

While The Pale Criminal has its fair share of twists and turns, it doesn’t quite have the wonderfully noirish feel of March Violets.  The plot is fairly comprehensible for one!  Pale Criminal feels more like a traditional thriller albeit set against the backdrop of 1930’s Berlin.  Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the book and raced through it in no time at all: it’s well written, has great characters, and the link between the main plot and the nefarious machinations of Nazi party officials is deftly served up, setting this apart from your standard thriller.  I’m hoping however that the third book in the trilogy, A German Requiem, sees the return of the noirish streak.  I’ll let you know.