My ongoing quest to read a case of each of the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives intersected neatly with JJ’s publication of 100 Books for a Locked Room Library and I happened upon a copy of this book that very afternoon.
Bernie Gunther is back in Berlin, working once more for the Kripo, but is equivocal about his work:
“Berliners were still killing each other, although there wasn’t 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… Still I went through the motions of being a proper detective, although it often felt like I was trying to put out a fire in an ashtray when, down the road, a whole city was the scene of a major conflagration.”
He is investigating the murder of a Dutch railway worker when the Gestapo ask him to look at another dead body, who just happens to be someone that he was chasing the previous night having interrupted an attempted rape. He becomes involved with the woman he rescued, Arianne Tauber, and finds that the two deaths are connected.
His investigations are curtailed when Reinhard Heydrich, with whom he has had previous dealings, orders him to his country residence just outside Prague so that he can become his bodyguard and investigate a recent attempt on his life. Heydrich values Bernie because he is not a member of the Nazi party:
“We don’t have any good detectives left in the SD or in the Gestapo. Within the kind of system that we operate we have all sorts of people; ambitious lawyers, sadistic policemen, brown-nosing civil servants, all, I dare say, good Party men, too; sometimes we even call them detectives or inspectors and ask them to investigate a case; but I tell you they can’t do it. To be a proper detective is beyond their competence. They can’t do it because they won’t stick their noses in where they’re not wanted. They can’t do it because they’re afraid of asking questions they’re not supposed to ask. And even if they did ask those questions, they’d get scared because they wouldn’t like the answers. It would offend their sense of Party loyalty.”
A murder is soon committed (not of Heydrich, as the first chapter, and history, tell us that his end is very different) and whilst Bernie does solve the how of the locked room murder and identifies the killer (with the method he has already revealed to the reader and yet it completely passed me by) but obtaining justice may not be so easy.
This is one of the best books that I have read specifically for this challenge. The murder method is unoriginal but the motive is devilishly brilliant. Bernie Gunther is a compromised character, but makes the reader face the uncomfortable questions of what orders they may have obeyed if their life was threatened and if ultimately someone else would have obeyed those orders anyway. He is a character whom I am sure I will return to.
For further information on Heydrich I can recommend Laurence Binet’s “HHhH” and the film “Operation Anthropoid”.