The Pale Criminal

Needing something different for my trip to Chicago, as a lover of history I decided to buy used copies of the first couple of Philip Kerr books and I brought them along for the ride. Having now read two of them, I was happy to realize that these historical murder mysteries were just what the doctor ordered. I went through the first two volumes of the Berlin Noir trilogy in no time, and I'm looking forward to discovering where the author will take his stories and characters next!

Here's the blurb:

Hailed by Salman Rushdie as a “brilliantly innovative thriller-writer,” Philip Kerr is the creator of taut, gripping, noir-tinged mysteries that are nothing short of spellbinding. In this second book of the Berlin Noir trilogy, The Pale Criminal brings back Bernie Gunther, an ex-policeman who thought he’d seen everything on the streets of 1930s Berlin—until he turned freelance and each case he tackled sucked him further into the grisly excesses of Nazi subculture. Hard-hitting, fast-paced, and richly detailed, The Pale Criminal is noir writing at its blackest and best.

The Pale Criminal occurs two years following the events of March Violets, in 1938, as Germany prepares to invade Czechoslovakia. As was the case with the first installment, it's that historical backdrop that gives the book its unique flavor. Though on occasions he is forced to rely on info-dumps to convey lots of elements, the author once again did a fantastic job recreating that particular period. It sets the mood and captures the political and social tension perfectly. The creeping paranoia encompassing Berlin and the rest of the country is particularly well-done.

As I mentioned in my review of March Violets, Bernhard Gunther is a tough, wise-cracking, and cynical PI. In the tradition of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, he could be nothing else. At times, it felt as though the author was struggling a bit to find Bernie's voice. I'm glad to report that this is no longer the case in The Pale Criminal. Indeed, Kerr gives us a more well-defined protagonist, and the author appears in a full control this time around. One of the first volume's shortcomings will likely be present in every single Bernhard Gunther novel. Unfortunately, too often the narrative gets bogged down in Chandleresque similes that bring nothing to the story and are just distracting, or even groan-inducing. Again, I understand that, to a certain extent at least, these books are supposed to be some sort of homage to the classic hardboiled noir detective novels. But sometimes Philip Kerr pushes this a little too far and it cheapens the whole thing somewhat. The man can craft classic noir plots, full of complexity and tension, in a setting that sets his stories apart from his peers. Hence, I feel that Kerr could do without these similes and still shine.

As I said before, Bernie is a man of his time, made even harder by the demands of his profession and the fact that he was cast out of the police force because he doesn't support Hitler's regime. The man is not always the most likeable of fellows. And yet, he remains the perfect protagonist to solve the cases on which he investigates, and you can't help but to root for the guy:

"I'm no knight in shining armour. Just a weather-beaten man in a crumpled overcoat on a street corner with only a grey idea of something you might as well go ahead and call Morality. Sure, I'm none too scrupulous about the things that might benefit my pocket, and I could no more inspire a bunch of young thugs to do good works than I could stand up and sing a solo in the church choir. But of one thing I was sure. I was through looking at my fingernails when there were thieves in the store."

The murders are much more gruesome and graphic in The Pale Criminal. I liked the fact that Kerr elected to explore the themes of homosexuality and occultism in Nazi Germany, which added yet more layers to an already convoluted tale. The plot is more chilling than in the first volume, as young Aryan teenage girls are abducted and made to look as though they have suffered Jewish ritualistic murders. Philip Kerr pushes the envelope further and with aplomb brings this one to a satisfying ending that makes you beg for more Bernhard Gunther cases.

Once more, the complex plot focusing on terrifying murders and theft will take the private investigator through every level of German society, from high-ranking and influential Nazi officials such as Himmler, to gang members and prisoners. And as was the case in March Violets, the more Bernie digs, the more he uncovers dangerous political ramifications that could get him killed. The pace remains crisp throughout and in true noir detective novel tradition, The Pale Criminal is a real page-turner that keeps you going, chapter after chapter, unable to stop yourself.

The Pale Criminal is another compelling blend of historical fiction and hardboiled murder mystery, better and more ambitious than its predecessor. Philip Kerr's Bernhard Gunther remains a flawed but endearing protagonist who tells a gripping and elaborate tale of murder.

The final verdict: 8/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe. You can also get this one as part of the Berlin Noir omnibus, which contains Kerr's first three Bernhard Gunther novels: Canada, USA, Europe.

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