By Philip Kerr
Putnam, $26.95 416 pages
It takes the combination of deep cynicism and brutal realism in which Philip Kerr specializes to write this riveting murder mystery based on the life and terrible times of Reinhard Heydrich, the sadistic Nazi butcher of Czechoslovakia in World War II.
The author's mordant humor is admirably demonstrated when Heydrich admits to Berlin detective Bernie Gunther that he is an admirer of the mysteries concocted by English writer Agatha Christie. Perhaps that is also why he respects the investigative talents of Gunther, a police veteran truly remarkable for his capacity to survive as a non-Nazi and working detective in the dangerous world of Berlin in 1941.
Heydrich's role as an architect of the Holocaust, based on the genocidal plan known as the Final Solution that he put into effect, was told in a memorably chilling film called "Conspiracy." Mr. Kerr, who has researched his grim topics exhaustively in a series of thrillers about the Nazi era, observes that Heydrich's "tall, spindly figure and austere pale features brought to mind the face of a flayed-alive saint."
Much of Mr. Kerr's plot takes place near Prague and is set in a French-style chateau taken over as a weekend home for a group of high-ranking Nazi officers, one of whom is almost immediately found slain.
In his work as a senior member of the Berlin police department, Gunther has acquired a reputation for efficiency, as well as a risky tendency toward high-wire independence in a dictatorship. Which apparently is why Heydrich summons him to carry out the role of bodyguard, since the coldblooded general is at high risk of assassination by Czech or British spies. Heydrich could have disposed of Gunther without hesitation, yet he sounds as though he was intrigued by behavior that walked the edge of peril.
Mr. Kerr employs a deft touch in the way he includes historical fact amid fictional devices, since Heydrich was indeed assassinated, after he ignored Gunther's warnings. A Czechoslovakian bloodbath followed the death of the Nazi that undoubtedly would have fulfilled his enthusiasm for mass murder. Ostensibly,Gunther is assigned to unmask the killer of a young SS captain in a group of men arrogant enough to resent interrogation and bitter that they must obey the bidding of Heydrich, who is the right-hand man of both Hitler and Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler.
Gunther's interviews with these uniformed thugs are the best-developed parts of the book because he can demonstrate that he has the blessing of Heydrich and. consequently, that they dare not defy him. His probing of vulnerabilities in personality and past conduct is both clever and tough. There is also a nice satirical moment when he and Heydrich discuss how the slaying they are investigating, involving a corpse in a locked room, is reminiscent of one of Agatha Christie's earliest thrillers. It is a measure of Gunther's skill that he gets reluctant but truthful responses and the kind of information invaluable on any level.
Even if he doesn't immediately find the killer, there isn't much doubt in the reader's mind that he will and that it may be the most unexpected of suspects. Meantime, the Nazis are also on a deadly hunt for Czech resistance workers, and what Gunther does not know is that he has deeply endangered himself by his affair with a beautiful Czech woman. Moreover, it is a relationship of which Heydrich is aware, and its consequences are severe, especially for the woman, who is tortured in a manner that could be described as the German version of waterboarding. The Nazis display total indifference to the suffering of any victim, and they boast of how long they can keep people alive.
Agony in Hitler's Germany was part of a way of life in which nobody trusted anyone and existence was fleeting. Gunther himself is plagued by suicidal thoughts, and it is not difficult to understand why life in such a world has no value.
Yet even the wily Gunther is shaken by unexpected developments, and the book develops into a psychological duel. He loathes the Nazi commander, yet he also respects a level of cold cunning and intelligence that he dares not underestimate.
The fact that Heydrich allows Gunther not only to survive but to return to what passed in those days for a normal life is a tribute to the detective's capacity to look death in the eye and walk away. And Gunther survives, with another four miserable years to look forward to before the war ends.
Mr. Kerr, who usually has a surprise tucked away, offers an even more intriguing explanation of Heydrich's death than his injuries from the assassination attempt. It is interesting to consider that what the assassination failed to achieve could have been accomplished as a result of the fierce rivalry among the Hitler elite who took each other's lives as casually as they slaughtered their millions of victims.
• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.