Prague Fatale (2011) by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr was a British author who garnered wide success with his World War II thriller series about Bernhard "Bernie" Gunther, Kriminal Commissar, which began as a trilogy and appeared to have been completed by 1991, but Kerr resurrected the series in 2006 – continued until his death in 2018. There were a total of 14 novels in the Bernie "Berlin Noir" series and the eighth title, Prague Fatale (2011), has been hovering in my peripheral ever since its publication. 

Prague Fatale is presented as a historical locked room thriller. Admittedly, the premise and backdrop is not without interest, or intrigue, but the book was published in 2011 and experience taught me not to expect too much from the more mainstream crime novels claiming to be homages to the classical locked room mystery ("worthy of Agatha Christie"). Particularly those written in the 2000s and early 2010s (e.g. Gilbert Adair's The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, 2006). So never really bothered getting a copy, but recently, Prague Fatale somehow kept coming to my attention. It culminated with JJ listing the book among the greats of the genre, "A Locked Room Library – One Hundred Recommended Books," saying "the historical novel and the puzzle plot have rarely meshed so effectively." We'll see about that! 

Prague Fatale is the eighth title to feature Bernie Gunther, a patriotic German policeman, who Kerr described as "a gumshoe in the grand and seamy tradition of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade" with "the toughest beat in detective fiction" – a Germany under the complete control of the National Socialists. Only he's not one of them. Just like "most people who supported the old Republic," Bernie is neither a Nazi or a Communist, which is why he left his position with the Berlin police. When the Nazis took over, General Reinhard Heydrich ordered him back as Bernie "wasn't about to chalk someone up for a crime just because they were Jewish" and that was useful to Heydrich ("...from time to time I'm useful to him in the same way a toothpick might be useful to a cannibal"). So he often finds himself in precarious situations, getting kicked around or forced to dirty his hands. Such as commanding the firing squad that executed dozens of Russian POWs and delivering "the coup de grâce to at least ten of them as they lay groaning on the ground." He also lost his wife in the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 and never had any lasting luck in relationships since.

You can add Bernie to the long list of troubled cops that dominate the modern crime and thriller genre, but, as you probably gathered from this brief summation, he actually has a legitimate reason to be more than a little jaded. Bernie finds the thought of suicide “a real comfort” not because he's trapped in a deteriorating marriage with rebelling, teenage children and a fondness for the bottle, but because he's continuously forced to compromise everything he once believed by the very people he despises the most. Bernie's struggle and the situations he finds himself trapped in appear to be the main selling point of this non-linearly series as each novel takes place in different periods covering Hitler's rise to power, the war itself and the beginning of the Cold War. For example, the last posthumously published entry in the series, Metropolis (2019), is a prequel set in 1928. So with all that baggage out of the way, let's jump into this dark, gritty historical locked room mystery. 

Prague Fatale takes place in September and October, 1941, and the first-half gives readers new to the series a pretty good idea why it has been called "Berlin Noir" or "Nazi Noir." Bernie Gunther has returned from Ukraine, where he witnessed the horrors of the executions pits, to pick up his post as Kriminal Commissar and pretend to be a proper detective, but discovers upon his return he's not the only one who has chanced – as the was has also left its traces on Berlin. There was a shortage of everything from food and beer ("...only powdered milk and powdered eggs" which "tasted like the masonry dust shaken from our ceilings by RAF bombs") to clothing ("...coupons paid for an emperor's new clothes and not much else") and cigarettes. While everything around them was neglected, breaking down or kaput and the new law obliging Jews in Germany to wear a yellow star only added to the dystopian ambiance. Berliners were still killing each other with new motives for murder that "stemmed from the quaint new realities of Berlin life," while the blackouts provide a cover for some real violent crimes. These are the mean streets of World War II-era Berlin.

So during the first-half, Bernie investigates the brutal murder of a Dutch volunteer railway worker, Geert Vranken, whose mangled, torn asunder remains were found along the train track with his pockets turned inside out. When the coroner finds about half a dozen stab wounds on what remained of the torso, Bernie knows he has a murder on his hands, but not one his superiors are keen to give any attention at the moment ("...you think the Ministry is going to be happy to learn that there's another killer at work on the S-Bahn?"). But that's not all. One evening, Bernie saves a woman, named Arianne Tauber, who was assaulted in the streets and he chased off the assailant. But the next day, he's confronted with that assailant once again when his body turns up in the Heinrich von Kleist Park. Is there a connection between all these cases and incidents?

I don't think many of the regular readers of this blog will find much to enjoy about the bleak, sordid affairs making up the first-half of the story and Kerr does not shy away from describing the nauseating, gorier parts in graphic detail – like a hardboiled Paul Doherty. The story shifts gear during the second-half when Bernie receives an invitation he's simply not allowed to ignore.

General Reinhard Heydrich is promoted to Reichsprotector of Bohemia and Moravia (Czechoslovakia) and planned a quiet weekend with friends to celebrate his appointment at the new place in Prague. The Lower Castle, "canary-yellow with a red roof, a square-tower portico painted white," is filled with "damned cauliflower." A reference to "the oak-leaf collar patches that distinguished SS generals, brigadiers, and colonels from lesser mortals." All of them important party members and close to the general. Bernie is informed he has been invited to the weekend party, because an attempt had been made to poison Heydrich and he wants Bernie to act as a detective and bodyguard. But then a murder is committed under seemingly impossible circumstances.

Hauptsturmführer Albert Kuttner, fourth adjutant to General Heydrich, is discovered dead in his first-floor bedroom with two bullet holes in his chest, but the door was locked from the inside with the key still in the lock and the windows securely bolted. There's no murder weapon inside the bedroom and a spent nine-millimeter Parabellum round is found on the floor down the corridor. Nobody heard a thing. So unless he was "shot by a man who could pass through solid walls," how could Kuttner have been killed inside a locked room? Heydrich tasks Bernie with investigating the murder and demands a solution, "before it can reach the ears of the Leader." No matter what impertinent questions he asked or whom he offended. And he expects his guests to fully cooperate with his investigation.

Even with the general's blessings, Bernie knows questioning some of the top brass of the Nazi party is not going to be as easy as in the books in which "a detective could turn up at a country house, question everyone, find some recognizable clues, and then arrest the butler over chilled cocktails in the library." However, the novella-length chapter covering the investigation and questioning most of the important suspects is the stuff of classics. The basic structure of this chapter is a good, old-fashioned whodunit with a locked room murder as its central puzzle, but considering the characters involved and the period, it required a flavor and atmosphere all of its own. Some of the suspects definitely find the questions to be impertinent and result in complaints, but Bernie deftly handles and turn the tables on all of them like a practiced snake charmer. While another much more talkative, easy-going suspect manages to surprise Bernie with a false-solution to the locked room puzzle of his own ("Why didn't I think of that?"). All in all, the best part of the book that makes me wish Kerr had written the whole series in a more conventional mold.

It has been remarked in other reviews that the locked room-trick is hardly original, which is absolutely true, but combined with the murderer's identity and a very good, original motive, elevated it to an outstanding historical mystery – comparable only to John Dickson Carr's underrated Captain Cut-Throat (1955). I'm just glad the key wasn't turned from the outside with a pair pliers, which is the modern-day equivalent of the secret passage. Anyway, Prague Fatale takes place in Nazi Germany and occupied Czechoslovakia, during the Second World War, which the ending rams home once the murder has been solved, but far from resolved. And any lingering illusions of the drawing room mystery is dissolved in the wink of an eye in the last couple of chapters. Brutally so.

So mystery readers of a more traditional bend will find the first-half of Prague Fatale rough going, but the second-half delivers a small, dark and memorable gem of the Golden Age-style country house mystery with a decidedly un-British backdrop and cast of characters. Prague Fatale might have been even better, bordering on a locked room classic, had the second-half been condensed into a novella, but that's mostly my own bias speaking. If you can take the gritty, historical noir and uncompromising depictions of the horrors of the Second World War with an unconventional, well-handled take on the traditional detective story, Kerr's Prague Fatale comes highly recommended as an excellent piece of historical fiction. 

A note for the curious: I had no idea where to fit this into the review, but Jim needs to know what he did. HUGE SPOILER/ROT13: V erpragyl erivrjrq nabgure bar bs Wvz'f erpbzzraqngvbaf, Jnygre F. Znfgrezna'f Gur Jebat Yrggre, juvpu hfrf rknpgyl gur fnzr ybpxrq ebbz-gevpx naq nyfb unq na vagrerfgvat pubvpr va vgf zheqrere. Shaavyl rabhtu, V gubhtug Gur Jebat Yrggre jnf gbb fubeg gb or gehyl rssrpgvir, juvyr Sngnyr Centhr pbhyq or fubegrarq sbe fvzvyne ernfbaf. Vg'f nyzbfg yvxr gurl'er sha ubhfr zveebe ersyrpgvbaf bs rnpu bgure naq fbzrubj gurfr jrer gur gjb gvgyrf V cvpxrq sebz Wvz'f ybpxrq ebbz yvfg gb fnzcyr. So, thankfully, they both turned out to be good detective stories in their own right or Jim would have some explaining to do.


  1. The combination of an uninspired locked-room mystery with a shockingly brilliant historical motive recalls my recently read "George Washington, Detective", which I also felt was elevated by its motive that is specific to its historical wartime setting. I'm sorry to hear that the locked-room mystery isn't the most astoundingly original thing you've ever read (I, personally, expect this from every locked-room mystery and this is why I'm never pleased) but I'm happy the novel succeeded in the end anyway!

    1. I'm at the point where when the impossible crime is not going to be astoundingly original or has something slightly different to offer, I want to see it being put to good use at the very least. Unless it involves secret passages, duplicate keys and pliers, of course, but that goes without saying. Prague Fatale certainly put the locked room-trick to good use here.

    2. I think the potential of secret passages is sorely overlooked, really. I think it's interesting to introduce a secret passage partway into the story that doesn't explain away the problem, but instead recontextualizes it, especially if the secret passage doesn't necessarily even help resolve the impossible crime. Questions like "who knows about the secret passage" or "how, specifically, does the secret passage contribute to the mystery" can be really fun if handled properly, I think. One of my favorite genres of impossible crime solution, and something I personally like to do, is when authors take solutions that are conventionally disappointing or lame and manage to make them interesting by putting an extra twist on it -- creating a unique solution that's unique because it's built from pieces nobody ever wants to touch.

      In fact, I had a pretty crummily-written draft for a no-footprints impossible crime in which the solution actually involves a drone! I think the prose is bad, but I'm pretty happy with the trick... Ordinarily, a drone would be seen as a cheap cop-out for no-footprints impossible crimes, but the part of the solution I'm really happy with is that the drone is a known element of the story from nearly the beginning, and the detective is frustrated because, no matter how much she beats her head against it, she can't figure out a single way for the drone to actually be helpful! She is determined that the drone had to be used somehow, but every possible explanation she can imagine is plum impossible or, given the circumstances, unhelpful, and just creates more problems, questions, and issues. So part of the no-footprints mystery is naturally the puzzle of "who could operate the drone?", "who knew about the drone's presence?", and, most importantly, "how the hell was the drone even useful if every possible explanation for its use seems impossible and silly?".

    3. "I think the potential of secret passages is sorely overlooked, really."

      I've to pull a Jim here and disagree for the most part. The problem with secret passages is that they are not merely convenient plot devices for lazy writers and bad plotters, they are the very definition of a cheat. A one-way, safe passage out of a sealed room requiring zero ingenuity or work and the only solution actually destructive to the concept of a locked room mystery. And much more limited than you might assume. I can only think of about three, post-1910s detective novels that found an acceptable way to use a secret passage. Two used them to answer a no-footprints situation and the third one is actually quite brilliant, but impossible to give a description or hint without spoilers. So, technically, it can be done, but a writer needs a divine spark of inspiration to do something really new and special with the secret passage.

      That being said, years ago, I gave the presence of secret passages and hidden rooms in locked room mysteries some thought and came up with only two acceptable ideas.

      The first is to have a murder in a very old, sprawling house under renovation where rumors have persisted for generations of a secret passageway, but knowledge of its location has been lost over time – until a body turns up in a locked room. So the crime scene is turned inside out and a secret door is discovered, but the door opens to reveal a very old brick wall. Apparently, the passage was sealed over a century ago and could not have provided the murderer with an exit. The solution: the murderer discovered the other end to the passage during renovations and either cut out or found a loose piece of brickwork in the passage and worked on it to snugly fit into the entrance of the secret passage. After stepping inside the secret passage and closing the hidden door, the murderer carts the brick wall/second door on a trolley up to the inside of the hidden door, places it front of it and tightens it into place with clamps or something. Yes, the manipulation of unlocked doors is something my mind often turns to.

      The second idea is not so much a trick as shin honkaku-style bizarre architecture. Just imagine a large, spacious customized house crammed with strange, slightly off rooms, twisting hallways and hidden behind its walls is a second, “negative image” of the outside house. This “negative image” house has long, narrow passages and small, windowless rooms (all furnished and wallpapered) with only two access/exit points on different floors at opposite ends of the house. Nothing about the second house is secret and everyone knows in which rooms they can access to the second house, but their locations places time restraints on the movement of the characters depending on where they are. It takes longer to travel from one point to another on the inside, because there are less shortcuts. For example, a body is found inside a (watched) room with an access point to the inside house, the murderer could have left the room unseen through the access point, but what if everyone can alibi each other? It would have taken the murderer minutes to get to the other point and everyone had gathered in the room seconds after the murder is discovered.

      Neither has been used as far as I know, but I don't you can do much else with secret passages. Well, this became a blog-post instead of a comment.

    4. I more meant that I think secret passages can work if revealed before the denouement. Instead of functioning as a solution, they become a known part of the puzzle in which their uses, applications, and utilities are unknown. I think it works better in non-locked-room mysteries, though, where secret passages are less foundation shattering to the very core of the mystery plot. THE KILLING OF POLLY CARTER involves a secret passage that's a very solid and workable clue without violating the impossible crime, for example. Instead of saving them for the denouement in the impossible crime, reveal them during the investigation so they can become a clue.

      This "negative image" idea of yours is brilliant. But I'd like to raise you an idea I wrote a long time ago as another acceptable variation on secret passages:

      A room has a golden door which is kept locked. The golden door can't be opened from outside or inside. On the wall to the right-side of the door is a window that's boarded shut from the other side. It would be impossible to remove the boards and put them back that way from inside of the room, and it's impossible to escape from that room once the window is boarded back up. The room on the other side is a bricked/sealed-off portion of the house nobody can access by any means. The main entranceway was locked from the inside. So how did a culprit vanish from the room?

      The trick? The golden door you see on the outside of the room, and the golden door you see on the inside of the room, are TWO DIFFERENT DOORS. When you open the door on the inside of the room, you're met with a bricked-in doorway that goes nowhere. When you open the door on the outside of the room (which is actually about 50 inches offset from the other door, but in a long hallway so it's hard to tell) it takes you to the second room that sits on the other side of the wall to the side of the interior golden door. In this way, the exterior Golden Door acts as "a secret passage" to a portion of the house previously thought accessible.

      You can then remove the boards from the window, climb into the locked-room, commit the crime, escape back through the window, board it back up, and then leave through the door that's been misleading people this entire time.

      Is this not a secret passage? But I sill think it's a solid piece of misdirection anyway, despite the fact it technically relies on something like a secret passage.

    5. I would not qualify your idea as a secret passage at all, but a variation on the cups-and-ball trick with two or three rooms and a body. A variation on your idea has turned up before in an episode of Jonathan Creek (Tubfg'f Sbetr). I checked Skupin's Locked Room Murders to be sure and has a valid piece of commentary on the solution, “not the type of problem that could withstand much investigation and so there is none in the episode.” Same is probably true for your Golden Doors. I assume the characters have a reason to break down the boarded up window (handily destroying evidence to the murderer's trick) in order to enter the room and discover the body, but you only to peek your head through the window to notice the door on the inside is closer than the door on the outside. You said the doors can actually be opened with the inside door opens on a bricked-in doorway. So what would the characters make of the outside door when they opened the inside door and found a bricked-in doorway? Why would anyone sandwich a brick doorway between golden doors?

      Only way to do it is to immediately draw the characters away from the scene and giving them a very good reason not to return or hamper the investigation of the room like the murderer collapsing that part of the house. Alternatively, you can dispense with the trick doors and fuse the side of the metal door or deadbolt into its frame. The door with a reputation for being unmovable could always be opened with a key (supposedly lost?) and the murderer (who has or found the key) played on that assumption by permanently soldering it shut after the murder, which everyone thought had been the case for many years. That way, the boards in front of the window do not have to be tempered with or destroyed. The murderer's manipulation of the trick would likely leave a smell behind that might be noted, but not immediately seen as suspicious in a rundown house with bricked-up sections and boarded up rooms.

      I really like picking away at locked room problems. :)

    6. Sorry, I think you misunderstand the nature of the problem.

      The locked-room murder takes place in a study, the area with one normal door which is easily and normally accessible, the golden door, and the boarded-up window that looks into the bricked-up portion of the house. The body is inside of the study, not the boarded-up area of the house. The golden doors are never opened, because the owner of the house calls them an art exhibit and doesn't want them damaged, and therefore keeps the key hidden (so nobody actually sees that the gold door leads to a bricked-in door way until after the denouement).

      The bricked-in part of the house is used as a way to get INTO the locked-room study. The bricked-up area is not itself the locked-room.

    7. Oh, yeah, I definitely misunderstood the nature of the problem, but it could have been stated a little clearer. If you ever plan on actually using the trick, you need to include a map. That or blame any confusion on Jim in a footnote.

      Now that I understand it correctly, it does sort of count as a secret passage that would not feel like a cheat. Good job!

    8. Thanks! First drones and now secret passages... It all comes down to knowing what makes mysteries tick, I think! Now if only I actually wrote and shared these stories...