Philip Kerr wrote his original Berlin Noir trilogy nearly three decades ago, and it’s been about that long since I last read them. The Pale Criminal is the second in the series and only its brevity suggests that it’s a much older book than the current, long-running series centred around Bernie Gunther. The popularity of the subject matter – Germany in the years before and after WW2 – and the central character – a cynical, sardonic detective haunted more by his own inadequacies than he could ever be intimidated by National Socialism – means it’s a savvy move for the publisher to re-issue the original investigations in modern jackets.
This also means that a lot of people like me will pick them up again, assuming the author has been particularly prolific in crafting a new Gunther novel every six months. I even have the original Berlin Noir anthology on the bookshelf, but that didn’t stop me ordering The Pale Criminal… and nor did it stop me thoroughly enjoying it, even if it felt comfortably familiar. To be fair, that’s part of the reason for reading the Gunther novels: a well-researched window into the life of a policeman in Nazi Germany, a skewed view of how historical events might’ve looked to der Mann auf der strasse; Kerr’s wicked ability to wield a sharp word to best effect.
This episode starts in 1938 when optimists were still hoping for the best while the wise prepared for the worst. PI Bernie is leaned on to return to Kripo, the criminal investigation arm of the police, to catch a serial killer. Inevitably it turns political: for everything in Germany at that time could hardly be otherwise. And if he locates the murderer, then Bernie will inevitably make implacable enemies among one or other fanatical factions…
Kerr writes here with a young man’s rage, the anger almost visible on the page. He even gives Gunther the ‘only obeying orders’ line. This Bernie Gunther is a subtly different person to the one Kerr writes now – someone with a bitter, almost brittle edge to his dangerous humour. The plotting is tight and the pace feels faster, too; by modern standards this is a short novel which only helps to give it more impact.
The result is a vividly realised police procedural, wrapped inside a political thriller, disguised as an historical novel. The Pale Criminal excels on all three levels – and if you haven’t read any other Bernie Gunther novels then it works perfectly as a stand-alone.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Pale Criminal by Philip Kerr is available in all formats; recently re-issued as an ebook