The Pale Criminal by Philip Kerr was published back in 1990, and is the second book in the Bernie Gunther series. I re-read it this week after an interval of nearly twenty years while waiting for more of the CWA Ellis Peters nominated books to arrive. [Having read two of these already, I just have to read the remaining four before the 29 October awards ceremony.]
The Pale Criminal is set in Berlin in 1938, where Bernie Gunther is now a private detective. While Neville Chamberlain shuffles towards the surrender of the Sudetenland at Munich, Bernie is hired by Frau Lange, owner of a publishing company. She is being blackmailed over homosexual love letters sent by her son Reinhard to a Dr Lanz Kindermann, who runs an exclusive private German psychotherapy clinic where Reinhard sought treatment.
Bernie and his partner Bruno Stahlecker track the culprit down but when Bernie is summoned to meet with Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SD, Bruno and the blackmailer are both murdered.
Heydrich asks Bernie to return to the Kripo to investigate the deaths of four possibly five, blonde blue eyed Aryan girls at the hands of a serial killer. Heydrich is not a man you refuse.
At the same time, appreciating the difference between the SD, or Sipo as the Security Service was sometimes called, and the Gestapo was a rather more elusive matter, even for some of the people who worked for these two organizations. As far as I could understand the distinction, it was just like Bockwurst and Frankfurter: they have their special names, but they look and taste exactly the same.
As Bernie investigates the deaths he becomes caught up in the intense rivalry between the Nazi leaders, a despicable 'blood libel' plot and the Nazis fascination with spiritualism, the occult, and religion.
'The Catholic Church is no less of an international conspiracy than Bolshevism or Judaism, Gunther. Martin Luther led one Reformation, the Fuhrer will lead another. He will abolish Roman authority over German Catholics, whether the priest permit him or not.'
The Pale Criminal seems to me to be a more harsh, violent and politically incorrect book than either A Quiet Flame or If The Dead Rise Not, probably because it is set in 1938 and the subjects it deals with such as, the serial killing of young women, homosexuality, and the stark brutality of a police state.
With such disgusting real life characters as Julius Streicher, Reinhard Heydrich, and Heinrich Himmler featuring in the narrative it is a bleak warning from history about what happens when the state does not just favour the criminal over law abiding citizens, but actually becomes the criminal.
This is an excellent novel with chilling characters, very dark humour, a tense plot and a feeling of historical authenticity that is stunning, it was yet another superb reminder of why I like this series.
'Listen it's only my good nature that stops me from marching you in there with your prick hanging out of your trousers.'
'What about my civil rights?'
'Shit, where have you been for the last five years? This is Nazi Germany, not ancient Athens.'