Not every “good German” was a good person. Take Bernie Gunther, a former Berlin cop turned private eye. By today’s standards, he comes across as a crude sexist and an even cruder homophobe. By the standards of any era, he is a foul-mouthed, sour-spirited lout for whom making a fast Reichmark looms as the overriding goal of a rather meager life. But he sees the Nazis for what they are, perhaps more clearly than any nice German does, and he despises them. So when a Party big-shot recruits him to investigate a series of brutal, politically charged murders, he faces a challenge fraught with dark possibility—as fraught, in fact, as the Munich Crisis of 1938, which coincides with the events of this tale.
Gunther takes up this new case even as another case reaches a violent climax: A blackmail investigation—one that involves a psychiatrist with ties to the Nazi hierarchy, a spoiled rich kid with an interest in the occult, and a homosexual liaison between the shrink and the boy—culminates in the slaying of Gunther’s partner. (Gunther, echoing Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, feels duty-bound to solve the murder of a colleague whom he didn’t much like.) The two plot arcs eventually converge, and the plot overall displays a well-constructed logic. It makes sense, unlike almost everything else in the Germany of 1938.
Kerr’s bid to ensconce this historical mystery within capital-H History falls somewhat flat. References to Neville Chamberlain and his umbrella, for example, merely distract from the horrors at hand. Still, the mood of deep menace that Kerr conjures up—an aura of regime-wide criminality that colors every lesser criminal act—proves quite potent. In such an environment, being a good person doesn’t count for much. Being a good detective, which Gunther certainly is, may not count for much, either. But it’s better than nothing.