'Prague Fatale': 'Downton Abbey With SS'

Apr 14, 2012
Originally published on April 14, 2012 11:25 am

Philip Kerr is a British novelist, born a decade after the end of World War II, who has written a series of compelling thrillers about crime in wartime Nazi Germany. His hero — mostly a hero — is a tough and cynical Berliner, a cop named Bernie Gunther. The newest book is the eighth in the series; it's called Prague Fatale.

Kerr tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that he decided to move the action from Berlin to Prague because it was a good, unexplored route into a familiar story: the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the notoriously cruel SS boss of Bohemia and Moravia.

"Not much was actually known or written about Heydrich in the months leading up to his death," Kerr says. "I thought it would be, well, a good wheeze to have Bernie turn up in Prague at Heydrich's request."

In the novel, Heydrich is familiar with Bernie Gunther from his time as a police official in Berlin. He brings Bernie to Prague as a protector, but also someone who understands the minds of murderers.

"When Heydrich became the governor or protector of Bohemia, as they persisted in calling Czechoslovakia, he had a little sort of weekend party to celebrate at his country house," Kerr says. He visited the house, which still exists, on a trip to Prague.

"I suppose it was then that I got the idea of turning this particular novel into a kind of traditional country house sort of mystery, in true Agatha Christie style," he says. "So it becomes a kind of Downton Abbey with SS, if you like."

Bernie is summoned to the country house and almost immediately a murder occurs, which he must then investigate. "The irony being, of course, that most of the suspects are indeed the most appalling criminals already," he adds, since they're responsible for genocide in Eastern Europe.

Kerr says he knows he's taking a chance in in giving historical monsters human quality. "Hitler was by all accounts a man of enormous charm," he says. "We sort of forget all these things at our peril. It's easy to make them just comic book villains, but the reality is, I think if we are going to understand them, we have to recognize quite often who and what they were."

When he was an undergraduate studying law, Kerr says he was shocked to discover how many SS members had also been lawyers. "And not just lawyers at the sort of bureaucratic end, but lawyers who were actually in charge of murder squads," he says.

"We should remember that most of the people who were involved were civilized people with wives and families who enjoyed fine music," he adds. "And I think the reality is, if we're honest, it's true that almost every country has committed terrible crimes on an enormous, industrial level."

Amid all this industrial-scale crime and horror, Kerr has created Bernie as a sort of German Everyman, who confronts the moral quandaries of his time. "It's easy to imagine that we'd all behave in heroic fashion," he says, "But I like to sort of ... have a character who's not entirely good, who's ashamed of some of the things he's done."

Kerr says Bernie is "essentially a decent guy, but like a lot of decent guys, he's aware of his own shortcoming."

Kerr has some ideas about where Bernie is going after his Bohemian adventure, but he's wary of using up his source material after eight books. "I'm writing really between the lines of history, and there's only so much history that's available to me ... so I kind of suspect there may not be too many more."

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Philip Kerr is a British novelist, born a decade after the end of the Second World War, who's written a series of compelling thrillers about crime in wartime Nazi Germany. His hero, mostly a hero, is a tough and cynical Berliner, a cop named Bernie Gunther. The newest book is the eighth in the series; it's called "Prague Fatale." Mr. Kerr joins from the BBC in London.

Welcome to our program.

PHILIP KERR: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: I wonder if you could just set the scene for us and tell us who the characters are in this newest Bernie Gunther novel.

KERR: "Prague Fatale" is set in the years 1941 to 1942. It's about a detective called Bernie Gunther who works for the criminal police in Berlin, which is called Kripo. He's summoned by his sinister boss, Reinhard Heydrich, to his country house in Prague. Heydrich is the new governor of Czechoslovakia. And basically asks Bernie if he will act as his bodyguard.

WERTHEIMER: Heydrich tells him he's there to protect him, but he also says: I want someone around me who understands murder and murderers. And that becomes like a theme in the book.

KERR: Well, yes. When Heydrich became the governor or protector of Bohemia, as they persisted in calling Czechoslovakia, he had a little weekend party to celebrate at his country house.

When I went to Prague I visited this country house, which is rather difficult to see. It was a secret weapons facility under the communists. And it's now more or less semi-derelict. When I saw it I suppose it was then that I got the idea for turning this particular novel into a kind of traditional country house mystery in the true Agatha Christie style. So it becomes a kind of "Downton Abbey" with SS, if you like.

So when Bernie is summoned to the country house, almost immediately a murder occurs, which he's then tasked with investigating. The irony being, of course, that most of the suspects are indeed the most appalling criminals already, having some of them murdered thousands of people in Eastern Europe.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Heydrich, he becomes a major character in the book. He was absolutely one of the worst of the worst of the high-ranking Nazis.

KERR: Well, he was given the task of the so-called final solution by Goering, no less. Goering had previously been chief of the Gestapo. I'm not entirely sure why it was Goering who gave him this job, however, Heydrich went at it with his usual customary efficiency. And to read about it is still one of the most horrific reads you can have.

WERTHEIMER: Do you feel that you're taking any kind of a chance here with these hideous historical characters in a book like this? I mean, you lend them a kind of humanity that we see that they did have leadership qualities and charming qualities. Do you hear from your readers about that - how can you?

KERR: Well, yes. And I think, to be honest, it has to be this; that there were 70-odd million people in Germany who were convinced this was the right thing to do. Hitler was, by all accounts, a man of enormous charm. We sort of forget all these things at our peril. It's easy to make them just sort of comic book villains, and make them just out-and-out horrible people. I think if we are going to understand them, we have to recognize quite often who and what they were. I remember when I was an undergraduate lawyer, I discovered, to my shock and horror, how many of the people who were in the SS, for instance, had been lawyers - not just lawyers at the sort of bureaucratic end, but lawyers who were actually in charge of murder squads. The reality is if we're honest, it's true that almost every country has committed terrible crimes on enormous industrial level. Russia massacred millions of people, so did China during the cultural revolution, so did several European countries, including Great Britain. And dare I say the Americans with the massacre of the American Indians? That was a population decimated beyond recovery, it seems to me.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think in these books that you set up Bernie Gunther to be the kind of everyman, the real German?

KERR: Yes. That was always my intention. Quite often, I'd paint him into a corner whereby we realize the sort of moral quandaries that would have faced most people. It's easy to imagine that we all behave in a heroic fashion. But I like to sort of - I mean, it certainly makes it more interesting from a writer's point of view when you're writing a novel to have a character who's not entirely good, who's ashamed of some of the things he's done. And he's always kind of haunted by memories of what he's seen and to some extent the memories of what he's done. He's aware of his own shortcomings.

WERTHEIMER: This is a kind of a dark sense of humor that you - where Bernie jokes about some of the things that he's done. This sort of darkness, is this a German thing, do you think?

KERR: In England, we often sort of imagine that the Germans don't really have a sense of humor at all, which is not true. Berliners have a fantastically sharp, brittle sense of humor. It's very jagged. Sometimes it's a bit cruel. The English actually have quite a deep understanding of cruel humor. So, I sort of feel - I've always felt, as Berlin was a kind of sort of state of mind, that it was a state of mind that I could get in touch with myself fairly easily. I guess people would imagine that if you were an ordinary German it would be terribly difficult to make jokes and get away with it. But the humor's really the only way he has of resisting the Nazis.

WERTHEIMER: Philip Kerr's newest Bernie Gunther novel - the one we've been talking about - is called "Prague Fatale." Mr. Kerr, thank you very much.

KERR: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.