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Prague Fatale

A Bernie Gunther Novel

by Philip Kerr

Hardcover, 401 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $26.95 |


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A Bernie Gunther Novel
Philip Kerr

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Book Summary

In 1941 Prague, private detective Bernie Gunther must sort through a roomful of murderous high-ranking Nazi Party members to discover who killed a young member of Reinhard Heydrich's staff. By the author of Field Gray.

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Excerpt: Prague Fatale



The thought of suicide is a real comfort to me: sometimes it's the only way I can get through a sleepless night.

On such a night — and there were plenty of them — I used to dismantle my Walther automatic pistol and meticulously oil the metal jigsaw of pieces. I'd seen too many misfires for the want of a well-oiled gun, and too many suicides gone badly wrong because a bullet entered a man's skull at an acute angle. I would even unload the tiny staircase that was the single-stack magazine and polish each bullet, lining them up in a rank like neat little brass soldiers before selecting the cleanest and the brightest and the keenest to please to sit on top of the rest. I wanted only the best of them to blast a hole in the wall of the prison cell that was my thick skull, and then bore a tunnel through the gray coils of despond that were my brain.

All of this may explain why so many suicides go wrongly reported to the cops. "He was just cleaning his gun and it went off," said the dead man's wife.

Of course guns go off all the time, and sometimes they even kill the person holding them; but first you have to put the cold barrel against your head — the back of the head is best — and pull the damned trigger.

Once or twice I even laid a couple of folded bath towels under the pillow on my bed and lay down with the firm intent of actually going through with it. A lot of blood leaks out of a head with even a small hole in it. I would lie there and stare at the suicide note written on my best paper — bought in Paris — and placed carefully on the mantelpiece, addressed to no one in particular.

No one in particular and I had a pretty close relationship in the late summer of 1941.

After a while, sometimes I would go to sleep. But the dreams I had were unsuitable for anyone under the age of twenty-one. Probably they were unsuitable for Conrad Veidt or Max Schreck. Once I awoke from such a terrible, vivid, heart-stopping dream that I actually fi red my pistol as I sat bolt upright on the bed. The clock in my bedroom — my mother's walnut Vienna wall clock — was never the same.

On other nights I just lay there and waited for the gray light to strengthen at the edge of the dusty curtains and the total emptiness of another day.

Courage was no good anymore. Nor was being brave. The endless interrogation of my wretched self produced not regret but only more self-loathing. To all outside eyes I was the same man I had always been: Bernie Gunther, Kriminal Commissar, from the Alex; yet I was merely a blur of who I had been. An imposter. A knot of emotions felt with gritted teeth and a lump in the throat and an awful echoing lonely cavern in the pit of my stomach.

But after my return from Belorussia, it wasn't just I who felt different, it was Berlin, too. We were almost two thousand kilometers from the front, but the war was very much in the air. This wasn't anything to do with the British Royal Air Force, which, despite Fat Hermann's empty promises that no English bomb would ever fall on the German capital had managed to put in irregular but nonetheless destructive appearances in our night skies. But by the summer of 1941 they hardly visited us at all. No, it was Russia that now affected each and every aspect of our lives, from what was in the shops to how you occupied your spare time — for a while dancing had been forbidden — to how you got around the city.

"The Jews are our misfortune" proclaimed the Nazi newspapers, But by the autumn of 1941 nobody really believed von Treitschke's slogan; and certainly not when there was the more obvious and self-inflicted disaster that was Russia with which to compare it. Already the campaign in the East was running out of momentum; and because of Russia and the overriding needs of our Army, Berlin felt more like the capital of a banana republic that had run out of bananas, as well as almost everything else you could think of.

There was very little beer and often none at all. Taverns and bars closed for one day a week, then two, sometimes altogether, and after a while there were only four bars in the city where you could regularly obtain a pot of beer. Not that it tasted like beer when you did manage to track some down. The sour, brown, brackish water that we nursed bitterly in our glasses reminded me most of the liquid-filled shell holes and still pools of no-man's-land in which, sometimes, we had been obliged to take cover. For a Berliner, that really was a misfortune. Spirits were impossible to come by, and all of this meant that it was almost impossible to get drunk and escape from oneself, which, late at night, often left me cleaning my pistol.

The meat ration was no less disappointing to a population for whom the sausage in all its forms was a way of life. Allegedly we were each of us entitled to five hundred grams a week, but even when meat was available, you were just as likely to receive only fifty grams for a hundred-gram coupon.

Following a poor harvest, potatoes disappeared altogether. So did the horses that pulled the milk wagons; not that this mattered very much, as there was no milk in the churns. There was only powdered milk and powdered eggs, both of which tasted like the masonry dust shaken from our ceilings by RAF bombs. Bread tasted like sawdust and many swore that that's exactly what it was. Clothing coupons paid for an emperor's new clothes and not much else. You couldn't buy a new pair of shoes and it was almost impossible to find a cobbler to repair your old ones. Like everyone else with a trade, most of Berlin's cobblers were in the Army.

Ersatz or second-rate goods were everywhere. String snapped when you tried to pull it tight. New buttons broke in your fingers even while you were trying to sew them on. Toothpaste was just chalk and water with a bit of peppermint flavoring, and there was more lather to be had in queuing for soap than in the crumbling, biscuit-sized shard you were allocated to keep yourself clean. For a whole month. Even those of us who weren't Party members were starting to smell a bit.

With all of the tradesmen in the Army, there was no one to maintain the trams and buses, and as a result whole routes — like the number 1, one which went down Unter den Linden — were simply done away with, while half of Berlin's trains were physically removed to help supply the Russian campaign with all the meat and potatoes and beer and soap and toothpaste you couldn't find at home.

And it wasn't just machinery that went neglected. Everywhere you looked, the paint was peeling off walls and woodwork. Doorknobs came away in your hand. Plumbing and heating systems broke down. Scaffolding on bomb-damaged buildings became more or less permanent, as no roofers were left to carry out repairs. Bullets worked perfectly of course, just like always. German munitions were always good; I could testify to the continuing excellence of ammunition and the weapons that fired it. But everything else was broken or second-rate or substitute or closed or unavailable or in short supply. And tempers, like rations, were in the shortest supply of all. The cross-looking black bear on our proud city's coat of arms began to look like a typical Berliner, growling at a fellow passenger on the S-Bahn, roaring at an indifferent butcher as he gave you only half of the bacon your card said you were entitled to, or threatening a neighbor in your building with some Party big shot who would come and fix him good.

Perhaps the quickest tempers were to be found in the lengthening queues for tobacco. The ration was just three johnnies a day, but when you were extravagant enough actually to smoke one it was easier to understand why Hitler didn't smoke himself: they tasted like burned toast. Sometimes people smoked tea, that is when you could get any tea, but if you could, it was always better to pour boiling water on the stuff and drink it.

Around police headquarters at Alexanderplatz — this area also happened to be the center of Berlin's black market, which, despite the very serious penalties inflicted on those who got caught, was about the only thing in the city that could have been described as thriving — the scarcity of petrol hit us almost as hard as the tobacco and alcohol shortages. We took trains and buses to our crime scenes, and when these weren't running, we walked, often through the blackout, which was not without hazard. Almost one third of all accidental deaths in Berlin were a result of the blackout. Not that any of my colleagues in Kripo were interested in attending crime scenes or in solving anything other than the enduring problem of where to find a new source of sausage, beer, and cigarettes. Sometimes we joked that crime was decreasing: no one was stealing money for the simple reason that there wasn't anything in the shops to spend it on. Like most jokes in Berlin in the autumn of 1941, that one was funnier because it was also true.

Of course, there was still plenty of theft about: coupons, laundry, petrol, furniture — thieves used it for firewood — curtains (people used them to make clothes), the rabbits and guinea pigs that people kept on their balconies for fresh meat; you name it, Berliners stole it. And with the blackout there was real crime, violent crime, if you were interested in looking for it. The blackout was great if you were a rapist.

For a while I was back in Homicide. Berliners were still killing each other, although not a moment passed when I didn't think it risible that I should continue to believe that this mattered very much, knowing what I now knew about what was happening in the East. There wasn't a day when I didn't remember the sight of old Jewish men and women being herded toward execution pits, where they were dispatched by drunken, laughing SS firing squads. Still I went through the motions of being a proper detective, although it often felt as if I were trying to put out a fire in an ashtray when, down the road, a whole city was the scene of a major conflagration.

It was while I was investigating the several homicides that came my way in early September 1941 that I discovered some new motives for murder that weren't in the jurisprudence books. Motives that stemmed from the quaint new realities of Berlin life. The small holder in Weissensee who drove himself mad with coarse, homemade vodka and then killed the postwoman with an ax. A butcher in Wilmersdorf who was stabbed with his own knife by the local air-raid warden in a dispute about a short ration of bacon. The young nurse from the Rudolf Virchow Hospital who, because of the city's acute accommodation crisis, poisoned a sixty five-year-old spinster in Plotzensee so that she might have the victim's better-appointed room. An SS sergeant back on leave from Riga who, habituated to the mass killings that were going on in Latvia, shot his parents because he could see no reason not to shoot them. But most of the soldiers who came home from the eastern front and were in a mood to kill someone killed themselves.

I might have done it myself but for the certainty that I wouldn't be missed at all; and the sure knowledge that there were many others — Jews, mostly — who seemed to soldier on with so much less in life than I had. Yes. In the late summer of 1941 it was the Jews and what was happening to the Jews that helped persuade me against killing myself.

Of course, the old-fashioned sort of Berlin murders — the ones that used to sell newspapers — were still committed. Husbands continued to murder their wives, just like before. And on occasion wives murdered their husbands. From where I sat, most of the husbands who got murdered — bullies too free with their fists and their criticism — had it coming. I've never hit a woman unless we'd talked about it first. Prostitutes got their throats cut or were battered to death, as before. And not just prostitutes. In the summer preceding my return from Belorussia a lust killer named Paul Ogorzow pleaded guilty to the rapes and murders of eight women and the attempted murders of at least eight more. The popular press dubbed him the S-Bahn murderer because most of his attacks were carried out on trains or near S-Bahn stations.

That is why Paul Ogorzow came to mind when, late one night in the second week of September 1941, I was called to take a look at a body found close to the line between the S-Bahn stations at Jannowitzbrücke and Schlesischer. In the blackout nobody was quite sure if the body was a man's or a woman's, which was more understandable when you took into account that it had been hit by a train and was missing its head. Sudden death is rarely ever tidy. If it was, they wouldn't need detectives. But this one was as untidy as anything I'd seen since the Great War, when a mine or a howitzer shell could reduce a man to a mangled heap of bloody clothes and jagged bone in the blink of an eye. Perhaps that was why I was able to look at it with such detachment. I hope so. The alternative — that my recent experience in the murder ghettoes of Belorussia had left me indifferent to the sight of human suffering — was too awful to contemplate.

The other investigating detectives were Wilhelm Wurth, a sergeant who was a big noise in the police sports movement, and Gottfried Lehnhoff, an inspector who had returned to the Alex after having retired.

Wurth was in the fencing team, and the previous winter he had taken part in Heydrich's skiing competition for the German police and won a medal. Wurth would have been in the Army but for the fact that he was a year or two too old. But he was a useful man to have along on a murder investigation in the event that the victim had skied onto the point of a sword. He was a thin, quiet man with ears like bell pulls and an upper lip that was as full as a walrus's mustache. It was a good face for a detective in the modern Berlin police force, but he wasn't quite as stupid as he looked. He wore a plain gray double-breasted suit, carried a thick walking stick, and chewed on the stem of a cherrywood pipe that was almost always empty but somehow he managed to smell of tobacco.

Lehnhoff had a neck and head like a pear, but he wasn't green. Like a lot of other cops, he'd been drawing his pension, but with so many younger officers now serving in police battalions on the eastern front, he had come back into the force to make a nice cozy corner for himself at the Alex. The little Party pin he wore in the lapel of his cheap suit would only have made it easier for him to do as little real policing as possible.

We walked south down Dircksenstrasse to Jannowitzbrücke, and then along the S-Bahn line with the river under our feet. There was an almost full moon, and most of the time we didn't need the flashlights we'd brought, but we felt safer with them when the line veered back over the gasworks on Holtmarkt Strasse and the old Julius Pintsch lighting factory; there wasn't much of a fence and it would have been easy to step off the line and fall badly.

Over the gasworks, we came across a group of uniformed policemen and railway workers.Farther down the track I could just make out the shape of a train in Schlesischer Station.

"I'm Commissar Gunther, from the Alex," I said. There seemed no point in showing him my beer-token. "This is Inspector Lenhoff and Sergeant Wurth. Who called it in?"

"Me, sir." One of the cops moved toward me and saluted. "Sergeant Stumm."

"No relation, I hope," said Lehnhoff.

There had been a Johannes Stumm who had been forced to leave the political police by Fat Hermann because he wasn't a Nazi.

"No, sir." Sergeant Stumm smiled patiently.

"Tell me, Sergeant," I said, "why did you think that this might be a murder, and not a suicide or an accident?"

"Well, it's true, stepping in front of a train is a most popular way to kill yourself these days," said Sergeant Stumm. "Especially if you're a woman. Me, I'd use a firearm if I wanted to kill myself. But women aren't as comfortable with guns as men are. Now, with this victim, all of the pockets have been turned inside out, sir. It's not something you'd do if you were planning to kill yourself. And it's not something that a train would normally take the trouble to do, either. So that rules out its being an accident, see?"

"Maybe someone else found him before you did," I suggested. "And just robbed him."

"A copper, maybe," offered Wurth.

Wisely, Sergeant Stumm ignored the suggestion.

"Unlikely, sir. I'm pretty sure I was the fi rst on the scene. The train driver saw someone on the track as he started to gain speed out of Jannowitz. He hit the brakes, but by the time the train stopped, it was too late."

"All right. Let's have a look at him."

"Not a pretty sight, sir. Even in the dark."

"Believe me, I've seen worse."

"I'll take your word for that, sir."

The uniformed sergeant led the way along the track and paused for a moment to switch on his flashlight and illuminate a severed hand that lay on the ground. I looked at it for a minute or so before we walked on to where another police officer was waiting patiently beside a collection of ragged clothes and mangled remains that had once been a human being. For a moment I might have been looking at myself.

"Hold the flash on him while we take a look."

The body looked as if it had been chewed up and spat out by a prehistoric monster. The corrugated legs were barely attached to an impossibly flat pelvis. The man was wearing a workman's blue overalls with mitten-sized pockets that were indeed inside out as the sergeant had described; so were the pockets in the oily rag that was his twisted flannel jacket. Where the head had been was now a glistening, jagged harpoon of bloody bone and sinew. There was a strong smell of shit from bowels that had been crushed and emptied under the enormous pressure of a locomotive's wheels.

"I can't imagine what you've seen that could look worse than this poor Fritz," said Sergeant Stumm.

"Me neither," Wurth observed, and turned away in disgust.

"I daresay we'll all see some interesting sights before this war is over," I said. "Has anyone looked for the head?"

"I've got a couple of lads searching the area for it now," said the sergeant. "One on the track and the other down below, in case it fell into the gasworks or the factory yard."

"I think you're probably correct," I said. "It looks like a murder, all right. Quite apart from the pockets, which have been turned out, there's that hand we saw."

"The hand?" This was Lehnhoff talking. "What about it?"

I led them back along the track to take another look at the severed hand, which I picked up and turned in my hands as if it were a historic artifact, or perhaps a souvenir once owned by the prophet Daniel.

"These cuts on the fingers look defensive to me," I said. "As if he might have caught the knife of someone trying to stab him."

"I don't know how you can tell that after a train just ran over him," said Lehnhoff.

"Because these cuts are much too thin to have been infl icted by the train. And just look where they are. Along the flesh of the inside of the fingers and on the hand between the thumb and the forefinger. That's a textbook defensive injury if I ever saw one, Gottfried."

"All right," Lehnhoff said, almost grudgingly. "I suppose you are the expert. On murder."

"Perhaps. Only of late I've had a lot of competition. There are plenty of cops out east, young cops, who know a lot more about murder than I do."

"I wouldn't know," said Lehnhoff.

"Take my word for it. There's a whole new generation of police experts out there." I let this remark settle for a moment before adding, very carefully, for appearance's sake, "I find that very reassuring sometimes. That there are so many good men to take my place. Eh, Sergeant Stumm?"

"Yes, sir." But I could hear the doubt in the uniformed sergeant's voice.

"Walk with us," I said, warming to him. In a country where ill temper and petulance were the order of the day — Hitler and Goebbels were forever ranting angrily about something — the sergeant's imperturbability was heartening. "Come back to the bridge. Another pair of eyes might be useful."

"Yes, sir."

"What are we looking for now?" There was a weary sigh in Lehnhoff's voice, as if he could hardly see the point of investigating this case any further.

"An elephant."


"Something. Evidence. You'll certainly know it when you see it," I said.

Back up the track we found some blood spots on a railway sleeper and then some more on the edge of the platform outside the echoing glasshouse that was the station at Jannowitz Bridge.

Below, someone aboard a river barge that was quietly chugging through one of the many red-brick arches in the bridge shouted at us to extinguish our lights. This was Lehnhoff's cue to start throwing his weight around. It was almost as if he'd been waiting to get tough with someone, and it didn't matter who.

"We're the police," he yelled down at the barge. Lehnhoff was yet another angry German. "And we're investigating a murder up here. So mind your own business or I'll come aboard and search you just because I can."

"It's everyone's business if the Tommy bombers see your lights," said the voice, not unreasonably.

Wurth's nose wrinkled with disbelief. "I shouldn't think that's very likely at all. Do you, sir? It's been a while since the RAF came this far east."

"They probably can't get the petrol, either," I said.

I pointed my flashlight on the ground and followed a trail of blood along the platform to a place where it seemed to start.

"From the amount of blood on the ground, he was probably stabbed here. Then he staggered along the platform a ways before falling onto the track. Picked himself up. Walked a bit more and then got hit by the train to Friedrichshagen."

"It was the last one," said Sergeant Stumm. "The one o'clock."

"Lucky he didn't miss it," said Lehnhoff.

Ignoring him, I glanced at my watch. It was three a.m. "Well, that gives us an approximate time of death."

I started to walk along the track in front of the platform and after a while I found a grayish green passport-sized book lying on the ground. It was an employment identification document, much like my own, except that this one was for foreigners. Inside was all of the information about the dead man I needed: his name, nationality, address, photograph and employer.

"Foreign worker's book, is it?" said Lehnhoff, glancing over my shoulder as I studied the victim's details under my flashlight.

I nodded. The dead man was Geert Vranken, age thirty-nine, born in Dordrecht, in the Netherlands, a volunteer railway worker; living at a hostel in Wuhlheide. The face in the photograph was wary-looking, with a cleft chin that was slightly unshaven. The eyebrows were short and the hair thinning to one side. He appeared to be wearing the same thick flannel jacket as the one on the body, and a collarless shirt buttoned up to the neck. Even as we were reading the bare details of Geert Vranken's shortish life, another policeman was coming up the stairs of Jannowitz Station with what, in the darkness, looked like a small, round bag.

"I found the head, sir," reported the policeman. "It was on the roof of the Pintsch factory." He was holding the head by the ear, which, in the absence of much hair, looked as good a way to carry around a severed head as anyone could have thought of. "I didn't like to leave it up there, sir."

"No, you were right to bring it along, lad," Sergeant Stumm said, and, taking hold of the other ear, carefully laid the dead man's head on the railway platform so that it was staring up at us.

"Not a sight you see every day," Wurth said, and looked away.

"You want to get yourself up to Plotzensee," I remarked. "I hear the falling ax is very busy these days."

"That's him, all right," said Lehnhoff. "The man in the worker's book. Wouldn't you say?"

"I agree," I said. "And I suppose someone might have tried to rob him. Or else why go through his pockets?"

"You're sticking to the theory that this is a murder, and not an accident, then?" inquired Lehnhoff.

"Yes. I am. For that reason."

Sergeant Stumm tutted loudly and then rubbed his stubbly jaw, which sounded almost as loud. "Bad luck for him. But bad luck for the murderer, too."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, if he was a foreign worker, I can't imagine there was much more than fluff in his pockets. It's a hell of a disappointing thing to kill a man with the intent of robbing him and then fi nd that he had nothing worth stealing. I mean, these poor fellows aren't exactly well paid, are they?"

"It's a job," objected Lehnhoff. "Better a job in Germany than no job back in Holland."

"And whose fault is that?" said Sergeant Stumm.

"I don't think I like your insinuation, Sergeant," said Lehnhoff.

"Leave it, Lehnhoff," I said. "This isn't the time or the place for a political argument. A man is dead, after all."

Lehnhoff grunted and tapped the head with the toe of his shoe, which was enough to make me want to kick him off the platform.

"Well, if someone did kill him, like you say, Herr Commissar, it'll be another of them foreign workers that probably did it. You see if I'm wrong. It's dog-eat-dog in these foreign-worker hostels."

"Don't knock it," I said. "Dogs know the importance of getting a square meal now and again. And, speaking for myself, if it's a choice between fifty grams of dog and a hundred grams of nothing, then I'll eat the dog anytime."

"Not me," said Lehnhoff. "I draw the line at guinea pigs. So there's no way I'd ever eat a dog."

"It's one thing saying that, sir," said Sergeant Stumm. "But it's another thing altogether trying to tell the difference. Maybe you haven't heard, but the cops over at Zoo Station are having to put on night patrols in the zoo. On account of how poachers have been breaking in and stealing the animals. Apparently they just had their tapir taken."

"What's a tapir?" asked Wurth.

"It looks a bit like pork," I said. "So I expect that's what some unscrupulous butcher is calling it now."

"Good luck to him," said Sergeant Stumm.

"You don't mean that," said Lehnhoff.

"A man needs more than a stirring speech by the Mahatma Propagandhi to fill his stomach," I said.

"Amen," said Sergeant Stumm.

"So you'd look the other way if you knew what it was?"

"I don't know about that," I said, getting careful again. I might have been suicidal but I wasn't stupid: Lehnhoff was just the type to report a fellow to the Gestapo for wearing English shoes, and I hardly wanted to spend a week in the cells, removed from the comfort of my warm, night time pistol. "But this is Berlin, Gottfried. Looking the other way is what we're good at."

I pointed at the severed head that lay at our feet.

"You just see if I'm wrong."

Excerpted from Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr. Permission from Marion Wood Books/Putnam, an imprint of Penguin USA. Copyright 2012.