Sat April 14, 2012
'Prague Fatale': 'Downton Abbey With SS'
Philip Kerr is a British novelist, born a decade after the end of World War II, who has written a series of compelling thrillers about crime in wartime Nazi Germany. His hero — mostly a hero — is a tough and cynical Berliner, a cop named Bernie Gunther. The newest book is the eighth in the series; it's called Prague Fatale.
Kerr tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that he decided to move the action from Berlin to Prague because it was a good, unexplored route into a familiar story: the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the notoriously cruel SS boss of Bohemia and Moravia.
"Not much was actually known or written about Heydrich in the months leading up to his death," Kerr says. "I thought it would be, well, a good wheeze to have Bernie turn up in Prague at Heydrich's request."
In the novel, Heydrich is familiar with Bernie Gunther from his time as a police official in Berlin. He brings Bernie to Prague as a protector, but also someone who understands the minds of murderers.
"When Heydrich became the governor or protector of Bohemia, as they persisted in calling Czechoslovakia, he had a little sort of weekend party to celebrate at his country house," Kerr says. He visited the house, which still exists, on a trip to Prague.
"I suppose it was then that I got the idea of turning this particular novel into a kind of traditional country house sort of mystery, in true Agatha Christie style," he says. "So it becomes a kind of Downton Abbey with SS, if you like."
Bernie is summoned to the country house and almost immediately a murder occurs, which he must then investigate. "The irony being, of course, that most of the suspects are indeed the most appalling criminals already," he adds, since they're responsible for genocide in Eastern Europe.
Kerr says he knows he's taking a chance in in giving historical monsters human quality. "Hitler was by all accounts a man of enormous charm," he says. "We sort of forget all these things at our peril. It's easy to make them just comic book villains, but the reality is, I think if we are going to understand them, we have to recognize quite often who and what they were."
When he was an undergraduate studying law, Kerr says he was shocked to discover how many SS members had also been lawyers. "And not just lawyers at the sort of bureaucratic end, but lawyers who were actually in charge of murder squads," he says.
"We should remember that most of the people who were involved were civilized people with wives and families who enjoyed fine music," he adds. "And I think the reality is, if we're honest, it's true that almost every country has committed terrible crimes on an enormous, industrial level."
Amid all this industrial-scale crime and horror, Kerr has created Bernie as a sort of German Everyman, who confronts the moral quandaries of his time. "It's easy to imagine that we'd all behave in heroic fashion," he says, "But I like to sort of ... have a character who's not entirely good, who's ashamed of some of the things he's done."
Kerr says Bernie is "essentially a decent guy, but like a lot of decent guys, he's aware of his own shortcoming."
Kerr has some ideas about where Bernie is going after his Bohemian adventure, but he's wary of using up his source material after eight books. "I'm writing really between the lines of history, and there's only so much history that's available to me ... so I kind of suspect there may not be too many more."