The Pale Criminal by Philip Kerr: A review

"When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it." - Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett was the master of noir and Philip Kerr seemed determined to follow in his footsteps. But his series featuring gumshoe Bernie Gunther is set not on the mean streets of LA but on the meaner streets of Berlin in the era when National Socialism held sway. This second book in the series is set in the fall of 1938, the period leading up to the terror of Kristallnacht. 

I read and reviewed the first book in the series, March Violets, in 2012 and I had intended to read more but just somehow never got around to it. Then I read last week that Kerr had recently died, although he was only in his early 60s. That was just the nudge that I needed to get back to Bernie Gunther and see what was happening with him. 

What was happening was that he had taken on a partner in his private detective business. Their business consisted mostly of trying to find missing persons, as people had a way of frequently disappearing in the Berlin of 1938. But in his most recent case, he had been hired by a rich widow to find out who was blackmailing her. One night, while working on the case, his partner has a house under surveillance, and someone manages to surprise and kill the partner. In the words of that philosopher Sam Spade, Bernie needs to "do something" about it.

Before Bernie is able to do much, he is approached by KRIPO, the Berlin criminal police, to come back to work for them and help them find a serial killer. The killer is abducting teenage girls, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, perfect specimens of Aryan womanhood and raping and killing them in the most brutal manner. KRIPO had tried to frame an innocent Jew for the murders but that all went awry, much to their embarrassment, so now they need a good and unbiased detective to find out what really happened.

Bernie is induced to take the KRIPO job and the search is on for a sadistic killer.

Kerr methodically builds his plot line, including much historical background of the period. It is interesting to see the police and ordinary citizens going about their business during months in which we now know that the tension was building toward the outbreak of violence that came in November. We also follow the reports of "negotiations" between Germany, England, and France, and Germany's ultimate takeover of the Sudetenland. 

Kerr presents his protagonist Bernie Gunther as non-racist and anti-Nazi, but Bernie could certainly not be described as an enlightened character. He is casually homophobic and misogynistic. He can't seem to address a woman without undressing her in his mind and imagining himself embraced by her thighs. He tolerates a certain amount of violence by the policemen under his supervision. There's no such thing as civil rights of the accused in Nazi Germany.

Bernie is, in short, a man of his times and one recognizes that the author appears to have made a conscious choice not to whitewash his characters. He presents them, warts and all, in the context of the brutal society in which they lived and by exploring their reactions to the events of their times, he is able to trace that society's descent into madness. There is a lot to digest here and much to give us pause, I think, about our own society.

I did find it somewhat irritating that the characters speak in their own period tough-guy patois, using jargon which one can only struggle to understand within the context of the action. I suppose using this language adds a certain amount of verisimilitude, but often I just find it distracting.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


  1. This sounds like a good one combining historical fiction and noir mystery. I didn't know Kerr had died recently.

    1. I just ran across a line referring to his death in the Times book review section. Apparently he had cancer.

  2. I knew I had heard of Philip Kerr lately. How unfortunate that he died so young. I liked your understanding that Kerr presents his characters in the context of their society at the time. I find it so annoying when readers assign our current "woke" standards to historical times. I mean, duh.

    1. Yes, even though I found it difficult to read at times because of the attitudes of the characters, I think it was very true to the beliefs of the society in which they moved and had their being.

  3. His first 3 books are available in one volume, entitled Berlin Noir.


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