The Pale Criminal
“Look, this is your sideshow, not mine, so don’t expect me to bring up the curtain and work the fucking lights. You go right ahead with your act and I’ll just try to laugh and clap in the right places.”
Following on from my recent reading of March Violets (reviewed here), I moved on to the second of Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir series – The Pale Criminal. As before, the book involves private investigator Bernie Gunther trying to make an honest living working in pre-war Nazi Germany. Needless to say, it’s not light subject material and doesn’t always make for pleasant reading (which is testament to Kerr’s ability as writer), but it is certainly a unique take on the genre, and throws up plenty of work for a private detective to get his hands on…
The Pale Criminal takes all the features that worked well in March Violets and upgrades them in a way that comes with the increased confidence that an author gets after the pressures of the debut novel are cast away. The year this time around is 1938 – two years after the events of the previous novel, and set in a country that is teetering on the brink of war. As March Violets made references to the 1936 Olympics and other topical events, The Pale Criminal is set at the time of the first wave of German invasions and Chamberlain’s stumbling attempts to broker peace. Tension runs higher and more directly throughout the course of the story, which sees Gunther reluctantly appointed as Kriminalkommissar by none other than Reinhard Heydrich himself to investigate the gruesome (and highly sexual) murder of a series of Aryan girls. At the same time, he is involved in an ongoing private job to investigate the blackmail of a wealthy woman’s homosexual son, which resulted in the death of his partner shortly before Gunther’s ‘promotion’.
I’ll say it now, The Pale Criminal is dark. Even by 1930’s Germany’s standards. Mixing a private detective case with a police procedural, Kerr gets to the gritty detail quickly and regularly. Pornographers, blackmailers, psychotherapists and rapists all play their mean parts as Gunther unravels a criminal conspiracy set up to help shift public opinion further against Germany’s Jews by framing them for the alleged racially-charged murders of Aryan women, with political power-plays taking place behind the scene. Kerr does an interesting job of trying to work high-profile Nazi officials into his stories – in March Violets, Gunther finds himself working for Joseph Goebbels, and this time around we have Himmler getting involved. It’s a risky strategy, blending real-life characters within a fiction setting, but Kerr manages to pull it off by creating a story that is sufficiently exciting whilst keeping the use of his high-profile characters to a respectable level.
As would be expected, Gunther himself remains the centerpiece of the novel and he is as cynical and conscious of the war that is to come as he was in March Violets, but he takes on more of an avenging-angel persona this time around. Whilst it is true that he is forced onto the police job by the Gestapo, it is his sense of duty to see justice done and prevent the criminal plot from going ahead, despite the inevitable futility of doing so, given the setting. Gunther perseveres nobly, even if it is ultimately fruitless. The ending of the story doesn’t let us down when it comes to melodrama and reads like a descriptive kick in the gut. But it’s damn effective, all the same.
As a detective story, the plot fits together well and moves at a quick pace. The final few scenes (set in a suitably atmospheric German castle) do rush by a bit too quickly and a few more chapters to flesh the scene out might not have hurt, but then it was always going to be hard for Ker to follow up the extremely powerful final scenes of March Violets. The dialogue is sharp and witty throughout – Kerr certainly manages to pick up Chandler’s flair for memorable dialogue (even if one rather over-described sex scene is perhaps too memorable), and Kerr’s level of research into the era is evident throughout. It’s a shame that no film adaptions of the Gunther novels had yet been made, as Kerr’s settings and style sound like something that could play out brilliantly on a big screen, and this tale in particular moves at a pace that a movie could, hopefully, do justice to. One day, maybe…
Overall, The Pale Criminal is a wonderfully dark tale which builds upon its predecessor in all the right ways, fleshing out the character of Gunther from a hardboiled detective to an avenging angel trapped in a sea of futility, and captures all the tension and fear of a country on the edge. Highly recommended.