Cover image of "The Pale Criminal," a novel about a Nazi serial killer

Berlin, 1938. A private detective is pressed back into service in the criminal police (Kripo) at the behest of one of Germany’s most powerful Nazis. Soon he finds himself embroiled in a complex and intensely political power struggle at the highest levels of German government that he only dimly understands. This is the theme at the heart of Philip Kerr’s thriller about a Nazi serial killer, The Pale Criminal.

Detective Inspector Bernie Gunther had resigned from the Berlin Criminal Police in 1936. His cynical views about the Nazi regime were sure to have gotten him fired soon, anyway.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Bucking the Nazi tide in 1938 Germany

Since the early days of the Nazi movement, Bernie has regarded Adolf Hitler as a dangerous buffoon. He frequently proclaims his opposition to anti-Semitism, running serious risks when he does. As the house detective at the elegant Hotel Adlon, and later in private practice, Bernie continues the aggressive and often foolhardy pursuit of the truth that so frequently got him into trouble on the force. Like Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, and other “hard-boiled” fictional detectives of the era, he uses his fists and handguns as well as his brains in the course of his investigations. Also like Marlowe, Bernie is a wisecracker.

Now it’s 1938, a year after Hitler swallowed Austria whole in the Anschluss (Annexation). Neville Chamberlain, umbrella in hand, is darting back and forth between Germany and England in the futile hope of preventing Nazi Germany from absorbing Czechoslovakia as well. The terror of Kristallnacht will come later in the year.

The Pale Criminal (Bernie Gunther #2) by Philip Kerr ★★★★☆

Blackmail, intimidation, and a Nazi serial killer

Against this backdrop, Bernie is hired by a wealthy older woman to find the blackmailer who is threatening to expose her son’s homosexuality, a serious crime in Nazi Germany. As he and his partner proceed with the investigation, they quickly make progress. Then Bernie is called away for an urgent meeting with Reinhard Heydrich, Germany’s highest-ranking policeman. He heads the Gestapo, the criminal police, and the security police. Heydrich is widely despised and feared; he was later revealed to be one of the principal architects of the Holocaust. Kerr refers to him as “the crown prince of terror.”

Heydrich is intimidating, as his reputation had made clear. At his insistence, Bernie rejoins Kripo, snagging a promotion for himself in the process. Heydrich has picked Bernie to investigate a serial murderer because he had gained fame years earlier for a similar, successful investigation.

As the new case unfolds, Bernie finds himself ensnared in a confusing web of complicated and often interconnecting relationships. He soon finds himself drawn into the orbit of other senior Nazis, including the infamous Heinrich Himmler and Julius Streicher.

The Pale Criminal adds historical depth to an engrossing tale of blackmail, intimidation, and murder. The suspense is palpable.

About the author

Among the dozens of novels Philip Kerr has written over the years, twelve feature the anti-Nazi Berlin detective Bernie Gunther. Eleven are in print, with a twelfth on the way next year. The Pale Criminal is the second book in the Berlin Noir Trilogy that inaugurated the Bernie Gunther saga.

Philip Kerr, Joseph Kanon, and Alan Furst are among the best of the contemporary writers who explore the history of Europe through their many thrillers set in the years before, during, and after World War II. Many deal with espionage. Others, especially Kerr’s, are better characterized as detective novels. I’ve never been disappointed reading a novel by any of these three authors. Kerr’s The Pale Criminal, the latest I’ve read, is entirely worthy of the others.

For links to reviews of the whole series, go to Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels.

My post 10 top nonfiction books about World War II may also interest you.

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