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Bernie Gunther #2

The Pale Criminal

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In the sweltering summer heat wave of 1938, the German people anxiously await the outcome of the Munich conference, wondering whether Hitler will plunge Europe into another war. Meanwhile, private investigator Bernie Gunther has taken on two cases involving blackmail. The first victim is a rich widow. The second is Bernie himself.

Having been caught framing an innocent Jew for a series of vicious murders, the Kripo—the Berlin criminal police—are intent on locating the real killer and aren't above blackmailing their former colleague to get the job done. Temporarily promoted to the rank of Kommissar, Bernie sets out to solve the dual mysteries and begins an investigation that will expose him to the darkest depths of humanity...

Hailed by Salman Rushdie as a "brilliantly innovative thriller-writer," Philip Kerr is the creator of taut, gripping, noir-tinged mysteries that are nothing short of spellbinding. In this second book of the Berlin Noir trilogy, The Pale Criminal brings back Bernie Gunther, an ex-policeman who thought he’d seen everything on the streets of 1930s Berlin—until he turned freelance and each case he tackled sucked him further into the grisly excesses of Nazi subculture. Hard-hitting, fast-paced, and richly detailed, The Pale Criminal is noir writing at its blackest and best.

273 pages, Paperback

First published May 4, 1990

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About the author

Philip Kerr

153 books1,834 followers
Philip Kerr was a British author. He was best known for his Bernie Gunther series of 13 historical thrillers and a children's series, Children of the Lamp, under the name P.B. Kerr.

Librarian’s note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 639 reviews
Profile Image for Adina .
892 reviews3,559 followers
February 8, 2022
The Pale Criminal is the proof that reading two books in a series before deciding if I want to continue is a good rule. I liked the 1st volume but I thought it was a bit too sexist and trying too hard to be funny. However, I enjoyed this book so much more.

The action takes place in 1938 Berlin, around the disastrous Munich conference. Gunther is “politely” asked to re-join Kripo to discover a serial killer who chose his victims among young and beautiful girls, stealing the future of Aryan Germany. During the investigation, Gunther will meet some famous Nazy faces and other interesting characters. I liked the mystery and the way real people were integrated in the plot. I also thought the humour worked better this time.

“I'm no knight in shining armour. Just a weather-beaten man in a crumpled overcoat on a street corner with only a grey idea of something you might as well go ahead and call Morality. Sure, I'm none too scrupulous about the things that might benefit my pocket, and I could no more inspire a bunch of young thugs to do good works than I could stand up and sing a solo in the church choir. But of one thing I was sure. I was through looking at my fingernails when there were thieves in the store.”

Oh Gunther, I know we will meet again and soon.
Profile Image for Mara.
401 reviews283 followers
August 10, 2014
There's a fine line between being lovably flawed and being a jerk when it comes to detectives/secret agents and what have you. Last time around, Bernard Gunther was in the former category. You can't blame a guy for having a bleak outlook on life in late-1930s Berlin, and the misogynistic attitude was what it was. In round two of Bernie's adventures, The Pale Criminal , I found him much harder to stomach.

It's not just the bedding of women during sex crimes investigations that got me, so much as his internal monologue of imagining himself between their thighs while they describe the last known whereabouts of their (presumably dead) children. Likewise, the threat of the pink triangle was real (I know, it's shocking that the Party wasn't more progressive when it came to same-sex relationships, but true nonetheless), but the quips about it just made Gunther seem mean (especially when paired with toilet humor even I didn’t find all that funny).

German concentration camp prisoner markings

Philip Kerr makes more use of his environment this time around. Bernie gets sucked back into Kripo , and is keenly aware of the internal strife within the leadership of the Nazi Party (including the questionable "purity" of The Blonde Beast, Reinhard Heydrich's , status as an Aryan). Julius Streicher's fiercely anti-semitic rag, Der Stürmer factors in as well which, if nothing more, is an artifact of the times.

Der Strurmer 1934

In the end, the mystery just wasn't that good and I liked Bernie less and less as it went. If the last in the Berlin Noir trilogy doesn't come to my library, chances are I won't actively seek it out. 2.5/5 stars for me.
Profile Image for Ian "Marvin" Graye.
875 reviews2,273 followers
December 31, 2020

Into the Groove

The second volume of Scottish author Philip Kerr's "Berlin Noir" trilogy (later expanded to 14 novels) is an immaculately conceived and executed homage to the pulp fiction of Raymond Chandler that deserves praise as a work of literature in its own right.

The main difference between the originals and this volume of the homage is that the setting is transposed to 1938 Nazi Germany in the summer months leading up to Kristallnacht (or "the Night of Broken Glass").

Like the first volume, the writing is word-perfect. There's enough wise-crackery and sexual bravado for the private investigator Bernard Gunther to remind you of Philip Marlowe, while the Nazi context gives you an insight into corruption and abuse of power in the early Third Reich, before the commencement of the Second World War.

Gunther is nearing 40 years of age and has retired from Kripo in order to set up business as a private investigator in partnership with a friend.

Apart from these differences, the plot quickly gets into a reassuringly familiar stride, like a wheel in a groove (if that's not a mixed metaphor).

The Summer of Bestiality

As with Philip Marlowe, Gunther's love life becomes an amusing, if slightly chauvinist and frustrating, sub-plot. He complains that it leaves a lot of women to be desired (but no more). He even thinks he knows the reason for his lack of success:

"There was one woman a couple of years ago. I was in love with her, only she disappeared. Well, that happens to a lot of people in this city [Berlin] ... Whatever the reason, my urge to procreate is nothing short of bestial, which of course women see in your eyes, and then leave you well alone."

He adds that "in the long hot summer of 1938, bestiality was callously enjoying something of an Aryan renaissance."

Converging Plots

And so begins the narrative, of which there are two strands: one concerns an attempt to blackmail a wealthy publisher, who engages Gunther to ascertain the person or persons responsible; and the other sees him coopted back into Kripo to investigate the serial murder of a number of teenaged girls.

It turns out that the latter crimes are part of an anti-Semitic plot by rogue elements of the German SS. The plot is designed to arouse suspicion that the murders have been committed by a Jew, so that a pogrom can be launched against the Jewish population of Berlin.

The plots soon converge in a whirlwind of brandy, cocaine, pyschotherapy, paganism, superstition, occultism, propaganda, racism, anti-Semitism, perversion and brutality.

Delayed Gratification

Gunther meets some new women, who appeal to him, despite their differences. However, he must wait almost the whole of the book for consummation.

The first woman (chapter 6) is Frau Kalau vom Hofe, a psychotherapist who is "an acknowledged expert on that unfathomable little mystery that we refer to as the Criminal Mind."

"My eyes looked and licked at the creamy woman...," but she gives him some text books to read at home (including Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs du Mal"). After some logistical conversation with Gunther and his associates, "I smiled, appreciating her cool resilience, as well as the fine breasts which strained at the material of her blouse."

They retreat to a bar for a drink, but their conversation is largely confined to the books, as well as Goethe's poetry (which Gunther read in school). He suspects that they might be intellectually incompatible. It seems that she is too brainy for his taste.

The next is Hildegard Steininger, the wealthy, widowed step-mother of one of the murdered girls.

He doesn't describe her physically at their first meeting, but at their second (chapter 16), he says, "There was no mistaking that golden head and those well-sculpted legs...She looked as though she lived in a beauty parlour."

By chapter 17, her legs are long. "In her beige wool bolero, dotted foulard blouse and burgundy wool skirt, she looked like a year's war reparations."

Hildegard might be too expensive for him to maintain.

By chapter 18:

"I figured that she probably preferred the kind of man who could think of himself as little more than a blank sheet of writing paper. And yet, almost in spite of her, I continued to find her attractive. For my taste she was much too concerned with the shade of her gold-spun hair, the length of her fingernails and the state of her teeth, which she was forever brushing. Too vain by half, and too selfish twice over."

Besides she can't cook.

Sex Spoiler

Nevertheless, when they have sex (which they inevitably do - her vanity isn't enough to deter him from the allure of her legs), "it was too rough to be polite, to be tender," and "her long thighs trembled wonderfully as we played out our noisy pantomime to its barnstorming denouement."

This was almost enough to compensate for the cancellation of the 2020 Bad Sex in Fiction Award, even if the novel wouldn't have been eligible.

Gunther rightly concludes that Hildegard is out of his league, and the last time he visits her home, he finds her entertaining a young, good-looking SS major. She's moved onward and upward in the social ranking of Nazi Germany, and has left Gunther well alone, albeit with an apology.


"Once was doubt evil, and the will to Self. Then the invalid became a heretic or sorcerer; as heretic or sorcerer he suffered, and sought to cause suffering.

But this will not enter your ears; it hurteth your good people, ye tell me. But what doth it matter to me about your good people!

Many things in your good people cause me disgust, and verily, not their evil. I would that they had a madness by which they succumbed, like this pale criminal!

Verily, I would that their madness were called truth, or fidelity, or justice: but they have their virtue in order to live long, and in wretched self-complacency.

I am a railing alongside the torrent; whoever is able to grasp me may grasp me! Your crutch, however, I am not.—

Thus spake Zarathustra."

Friedrich Nietzsche
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,492 reviews2,735 followers
January 5, 2017
Berlin, 1938: the Nazis are firmly in power and we're moving menacingly towards Kristallnacht. Gunther is faced with an intriguing double plot of gay blackmail and the serial murders of pretty Aryan girls. But is there really a sex maniac/ritual murderer on the loose - or is something far more sinister behind the cases?

Kerr has got some fascinating detail here especially on Nazi responses to psychotherapy and mental health - but Gunther's rampant sexist commentary and creepy lechery is just tiresome and feels particularly inappropriate in a case involving fairly graphic sexualised violence against young women.

That said, having struggled a bit with the first book in this series, this feels far more competent and I've resigned myself to enjoying these books despite Gunter rather than because of him! It's quite rare to find a writer who can inhabit his historical setting in the way that Kerr does, and he generally avoids the dreaded info-dumps.

So a 'hero' who doesn't endear himself to me but overall this is a tight and engaging depiction of the inner workings of Nazi Germany with a complex plot at its heart.
Profile Image for Jamie.
1,197 reviews116 followers
February 5, 2022
I love this series, so gritty, so dark. Pre-war Berlin is like the ultimate (real world) dystopia with a twisted, oppressive atmosphere that is just vividly palpable. Gunther is one of the last few who give a shit about justice, which becomes increasingly difficult as he navigates the overlapping and conflicting spheres of influence and corruption of the personalities of the Nazi ruling elite with their incessant posturing, power grabs and abhorrent morality. Kerr's prose is smooth going down, marked with frequent flashes of witty cynicism and wry personal observations that do indeed bring to mind the great Raymond Chandler.
Profile Image for Helen.
Author 12 books225 followers
June 18, 2012
I read this all in one day. I repeat; in Nazi Germany, Bernie Gunther would have been dead ten times by page 50. But I'll forgive Phillip Kerr, if only for the great sensory pleasure of immersing myself in the reality of his description. He seems to know every neighborhood, every street, every boulevard, every music hall and restaurant and government building and whorehouse, the accents spoken by Germans from Nuremberg or Bavaria, and which Nazis were bad, or not so bad. The depth of his knowledge, and his comfort level in writing about it, is truly astounding.

I have read a lot of Holocaust history, so I confess to a certain amount of guilt in reading these entertaining thrillers. Still, I got chills as fictional Bernie Gunther sniffed around the edges of the catastrophe to come, later to be known as Kristallnacht. It's quite magical, the way Kerr imagines ordinary people discussing events that we know are looming, just a few months away, on the factual timeline of World War II. And every now and then, he escapes the bounds of his genre to write a truly lyrical, quotable line on history, and the nature of man at his worst.

Looking forward to the next one.

Profile Image for Mark.
1,372 reviews92 followers
October 6, 2014
I finally finished this novel and dare to say that it is without any doubt the worst of the Bernie Gunthers' novels I have read so far, with two more to go.

Bernie is working as a PI after been out of the Berlin kripo (KRIminal POlizei = police) and he gets put back in his job by some serious Nazi big wigs simply because he is a good cop and in these days of Nazis getting all the good jobs there is a serious lack of cops who can actually work a case. The case being good German Aryan girls being kidnapped and then killed. As an informed reader you suddenly know the plot it being those pesky Jews killing German finest or Germans killing those girls in order to blame them on those Jewish folks. Throw in some supernatural stuff, which is as flaky as the plot, and have Bernie travel around Germany and learn how awefull those Nazis are and you've got the story. Where in previous books I have read a more subtle approach and a far more informative this time Kerr uses a shovel to ram home some facts. The story is far to predictable and two dimensional to be really exciting to read. Add Bernie's questionable, read awefull, approach to sexuality towards women and homosexuals and this novel suddenly is not so much fun to read.
Had this been the second book I had read I would not have continued with the series, however this being the almost last I have read I know that Kerr can do better and has done so several times.
This book does not show the problems for Jews in pre-WWII Nazi Germany without going over the top, the fact that the book ends on the night of the Kristallnacht and chooses to do nothing with that important moment and in the afterword more gets made out of the financial damage as the damage to the people shows that Kerr clearly made the wrong choices in this book. This book about a conspiracy to blame the Jewish never gets into a stride it keeps limping around while telling the message how awefull it was and forgetting like in the other BG novels that while it was a part of daily life under the Nazi regime there was so much more wrong instead of hammering on just one. The whole book felt like it was an advertisement on one subject and were the other books have given the story more shades than just black and white.

A big dissapointment for me.
Profile Image for Dave.
3,108 reviews353 followers
September 23, 2017
At The Very Gates of Hell

Down these mean streets... The genius of Kerr is that he takes the dark dreary Hardboiled detective Gunther and placed him not on the mean streets of Los Angeles, but in the midst of Hitler's Germany in 1938...at the very gates of Hell, on the eve of Kristalnachtt. In so doing, Kerr paints a picture of sadism, debauchery, and fear, that is uncanny. You can feel how dark the very skies are becoming, how thick the air is, how twisted logic has become.

This book has Gunther rejoining the police force - although not by choice- and hunting for a serial killer and a web of blackmail. Like all the books in this series, it is a terrific read, although the plot line is not as sure as that in the first book, March Violets, and appears to meander a little at times.
Profile Image for Tim Orfanos.
345 reviews36 followers
February 1, 2021
Το δεύτερο βιβλίο της πολύκροτης τριλογίας του Kerr είναι ένα καθαρόαιμο αστυνομικό-ιστορικό θρίλερ με 'νουάρ' στοιχεία, το οποίο 'τοποθετείται' το 1938, λίγο πρίν το ξέσπασμα του Β' Παγκοσμίου Πολέμου. Η γραφή του Kerr είναι πιο γραμμική και στυλιζαρισμένη από το 1ο βιβλίο, ενώ αντικατοπτρίζονται, ιδιαίτερα, 'ζωντανά' και περιγραφικά όλη η φρίκη και τα σκοτεινά κίνητρα της ιμπεριαλιστικής πολιτικής του Χίτλερ. Αυτό που ιντριγκάρει τους αναγνώστες, όμως, περισσότερο, είναι η συμβολή της μεταφυσικής και της παραψυχολογίας στην διαλεύκανση των ειδεχθών εγκλημάτων - σε αυτό το σημείο, το μαύρο χιούμορ 'ανταγωνίζεται' την κτηνωδία.

Δεν μπορώ να μην αναφέρω καί πάλι ότι ο συγγραφέας έχει κάνει διεξοδικότατη έρευνα του κεντρικού θέματος, κάτι το οποίο φαίνεται από την ακρίβεια και την αλληλουχία των γεγονότων της ιστορίας. Ο ήρωάς του, Μπέρνι Γκούντερ, εδώ, εξελίσσεται περισσότερο σαν προσωπικότητα, δείχνοντας στοιχεία αριβισμού, αλλά και μεθοδικής αποτελεσματικότητας.

Σε γενικές γραμμές, το συγκεκριμένο βιβλίο είναι πιο 'γρήγορο' και λιγότερο σύνθετο στην εξέλιξη της πλοκής σε σχέση με τα άλλα 2 μέρη της τριλογίας του Kerr, διαθέτει σπιρτόζικους διαλόγους (αξέχαστοι οι διάλογοι μεταξύ του Γκούντερ και της μεγαλοεκδότριας Λάνγκε), όπως, τις περισσότερες φορές, καί εύστοχο 'μαύρο' χιούμορ, ωστόσο, είναι το λιγότερο ατμοσφαιρικό και μυστηριώδες από τα βιβλία της 'Τριλογίας', και σε κάποιες, ίσως, γυναίκες-αναγνώστριες θα φανεί αρκετά 'μισογυνικό' και περισσότερο 'βωμολόχο' από όσο χρειαζόταν να είναι.

Οφείλω να τονίσω, όμως, ότι περιέχει καί αυτό το βιβλίο πολλά στοιχεία και λεπτομέρειες ιστορικής αξίας, ειδικά, στο τελευταίο μέρος.

Βαθμολογία: 4,3/5 ή 8,6/10.
Profile Image for nikolaos.
103 reviews28 followers
September 10, 2017
Το δεύτερο βιβλίο της τριλογίας του Βερολίνου είναι ένα πολύ καλό βιβλίο.
Μου άρεσε περισσότερο από το πρώτο της τριλογίας (αν και η αλήθεια είναι ότι δεν το θυμάμαι και πολύ καλά), ενώ το τρίτο δεν το έχω διαβάσει ακόμα. (Η τριλογία έπεσε στα χέρια μου αφού είχα διαβάσει μερικά από τα μετέπειτα βιβλία του συγγραφέα)
Το καλό με αυτό το βιβλίο είναι ότι όταν το έπιανα στα χέρια μου, ήθελα να διαβάσω πολλές σελίδες, ενώ τα άλλα βιβλία του συγγραφέα τα πηγαίνω, συνήθως, πιο αργά.
Στο περιεχόμενο, τώρα, η κύρια ιστορία του βιβλίου είναι η ανακάλυψη του δράστη, ο οποίος απαγάγει και σκοτώνει νεαρές Γερμανίδες. Όπως συνήθως, δεν πρόκειται για μια απλή υπόθεση, ενώ επίσης, ο συγγραφέας δεν μας πηγαίνει κατευθείαν σε αυτή την κύρια ιστορία, αλλά ακολουθεί μια τακτική, η οποία υπάρχει και σε άλλα βιβλία του, δηλαδή να αρχίζει με μία άλλη υπόθεση (η ανάθεση στον πρωταγωνιστή της ανακάλυψης του δράστη ενός εκβιασμού, μέσω του οποίου απαιτεί χρήματα ), η οποία αν και φαινομενικά άσχετη με την κύρια ιστορία , κάποια στιγμή συσχετίζεται.
Νομίζω ότι όποιος έχει διαβάσει και ευχαριστηθεί άλλα βιβλία του συγγραφέα, θα ευχαριστηθεί κι αυτό, ενώ θεωρώ ότι ενδείκνυται και για την πρώτη γνωριμία κάποιου αναγνώστη με τον συγγραφέα.
Profile Image for HBalikov.
1,788 reviews675 followers
August 23, 2016
This is book #2 in the Bernie Gunther saga. It is 1936 and the dark cloud of National Socialism covers everything. Bernie is still depressed over the disappearance of his secretary/lover and he is trying to adjust to having a partner in his detective practice.

“I had another argument with my boy Heinrich when I got back from the Zoo.” (his partner mentions)
“What was it this time?”
“He’s only gone and joined the motorized Hitler Youth, that’s all.”
I shrugged. “He would have to have joined the regular Hitler Youth sooner or later.”
“The little swine didn’t have to be in such a damned hurry to join, that’s all. He could have waited to be taken in, like the rest of the lads in his class.”
“Come on, look on the bright side. They’ll teach him how to drive and look after an engine. They’ll still turn him into a Nazi, of course, but at least he’ll be a Nazi with a skill.”

Black humor, black deeds and what looks like a simple blackmail case gets very complicated.
Again, Kerr (through Gunther) gives us a ground-level tour of the Nazi capitol, Berlin. He also gives us a very stress-inducing, palpable tour of the venality, pettiness, power-grabbing, and criminality that was the National Socialist movement. The tipping point comes when Gunther is taken to meet Reinhard Heydrich, known as “the man with the iron heart.” Perhaps, part of their conversation is the best way to give you a sense of how Kerr brings this all together.

“At my home in Schlactensee we have a fine garden with its own croquet lawn. Are either of you familiar with the game?”
“No,” we said in unison.
“It’s an interesting game; I believe it’s very popular in England. It provides an interesting metaphor for the new Germany. Laws are merely hoops through which the people must be driven, with varying degrees of force. But there can be no movement without the mallet – croquet is really the perfect game for a policeman”….”The new Germany,” he said, “is all about arresting the decline of the family, you know, and establishing a national community of blood…the better our children, the better the future of Germany…What about children? Do you like them?”
“I like them.”
“Good,” he said. “It’s my own personal opinion that it is essential to like them, doing what we do – even the things we must do that are hard because they seem distasteful to us – for otherwise we can find no expression for our humanity…A maniac is loose on the streets of Berlin, Herr Gunther.”
I shrugged, “Not so as you would notice,” I said.
Heydrich shook his head impatiently.
“No, I don’t mean a Stormtrooper beating up some old Jew. I mean a murderer (of young girls).”
“I haven’t seen anything in the newspapers about it.”
….”Thanks to Streicher and his anti-Semitic rag, it would only get blamed on the Jews,” said Nebe.
“Precisely so,” said Heydrich. “The last thing I want is an anti-Jewish riot in this city. That sort of thing offends my sense of public order. It offends me as a policeman. When we do decide to clear out the Jews it will be in a proper way, not with a rabble to do it”….”You see, Gunther,” said Heydrich, “we come back to you again. Quite frankly, I doubt there is a better detective in the whole of Germany.”
I laughed and shook my head. “You’re good. Very good. That was a nice speech you made about children and the family, General, but of course we both know that the real reason you’re keeping the lid on this thing is because it makes your modern police force look like a bunch of incompetents. Bad for them, bad for you. And the real reason you want me back is not because I’m such a good detective, but because the rest are so bad.”

Kerr induces (and lets the reader explore) the discomfort that comes with some very violent acts. He also provides, through additional characters, an exploration of the criminal sexual/sadistic mind and how the fear of death may provide self-justification for both the conventional criminal and the Nazi criminal. The experiences change Gunther, so that well into this story he describes himself as follows: “I’m no knight in shining armour. Just a weather-beaten man in a crumpled overcoat on a street corner with only a grey idea of something you might as well go ahead and call Morality. Sure, I’m none too scrupulous about the things that might benefit my pocket, and I could no more inspire a bunch of young thugs to do good works than I could stand up and sing a solo in the church choir. But of one thing I was sure. I was through looking at my fingernails when there were thieves in the store.”

There is little more I can offer to help you decide if this is something you care to explore. I know, somewhat from reading this series out of order, where Gunther must travel. And, it is a difficult road that reflects the times in Germany and the world at large.
Profile Image for Alex Cantone.
Author 3 books35 followers
July 21, 2019
Kindermann’s clinic stood off a quiet road in a large but well-behaved sort of garden that sloped down to a small backwater off the main lake and included, among the many elm and chestnut trees, a colonnaded pier, a boathouse and a Gothic folly that was so neatly built as to take on a rather more sensible air. It looked like a medieval telephone kiosk.

Berlin, 1938. Former detective turned PI Bernie Günther meets police chief Arthur Nebe under cover of darkness, Nebe gives him the heads up that Heydrich of the Gestapo wants him back at Kripo to undertake a delicate investigation; but meanwhile he is retained by wealthy German woman Frau Lange, owner of a printing company. Her son is gay and a blackmailer has acquired letters between him and his lover, psychotherapist Dr Lanz Kindermann, and she wants him to track down who it is. When Bernie asks how she knew of him when he does not advertise, she shows him a business card dating from before he had a partner (Bruno Stahlecter), with his private number written on it, that the mother found in her son’s jacket. This takes him back to his affair with Inge Lorenz, who mysteriously disappeared two years earlier.

But staking out and finding the identity of the blackmailer is only the start of his troubles: his partner is murdered and the blackmailer commits suicide (apparently) which frees him up to return to Kripo and head an investigation into the abduction and murder of several teenage girls, which the Gestapo is keeping a lid on to avoid any copycat killings. Günther agrees, but on his terms – that he picks his own small team and is made Kommissar, to avoid line of command with senior Kripo officers. But at least he has a few friends there.

Tanker nodded reflectively as he pushed off the bottle tops with his bare thumbs. ‘And it’s Kommissar now, I hear. Resigns as an inspector. Reincarnated as a Kommissar. Makes you believe in f___ing magic, doesn’t it? If I didn’t know you better I’d say you were in somebody’s pocket.’

‘Just when you thought that things couldn’t get any worse, you find out that they’ve always been a lot worse than you thought they were. And then they get worse...’

A suspect is apprehended then released as another girl is abducted, and Günther struggles to keep his detectives Korsch, Deubel and Becker, in line. An anonymous phone tip off and another girl’s experience suggests someone with a Bavarian accent is behind the killings, linking back to the SS itself. With the mother of one of the missing girls Günther goes undercover, attending a séance in the presence of Himmler, where the medium describes the girl’s whereabouts.

He gets to travel outside Berlin (and not as a prisoner). I drove west out of Berlin, following the yellow signs indicating long-distance traffic, heading towards Potsdam and beyond it, to Hanover. The autobahn branches off from the Berlin circular road at Lehnin, leaving the old town of Brandenburg to the north, and beyond Zeisar the road runs west in a straight line…

From the narrow winding road, Wewelsburg looked like a typical Westphalian peasant village, with as many shrines to the Virgin Mary on the walls and grass verges as there were pieces of farm machinery left lying outside the half-timbered, fairy story houses. I knew I was in for something weird when I stopped at one of these for directions...the flying griffins, runic symbols and ancient words of German that were carved or painted in gold on the black window casements and lintels put me in mind of witches and wizards...

This was a solid read if a bit of a slow-burner at first, and covered a dark page in European history (persecution of Jews, gypsies, Catholic Priests, homosexuals in a purging of society). Not that Germany was alone as Stalin too had his Pograms. Unlike March Violets there are no US-style mobsters here, instead a throw back to Pagan and early-Christian cults, with Heydrich proving an unexpected ally.

Verdict: A good, if noir read, and I am beginning to warm to Bernie Günther.
Profile Image for Nigeyb.
1,245 reviews283 followers
November 2, 2016
Whilst not quite as good as 'March Violets', the first of the Bernhard Günther novels by Philip Kerr, this is an absorbing and exciting read.

Set in 1938, two years after the events of 'March Violets', Bernie Günther has taken Bruno Stahlecker, another ex-police officer, as his partner. The two are working on a case where a Frau Lange, owner of a large publishing house, is being blackmailed for the homosexual love letters her son Reinhardt sent to his psychotherapist Dr. Kindermann.

As in 'March Violets', although most of the characters are fictitious, the novel's plot also involves historical figures, including Julius Streicher, Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, and 'The Pale Criminal' is permeated by an atmosphere of Nazi brutality and anti-Semitism. This time round there are some philosophical and psychological themes that were prevalent during the Nazi era, and the story also embraces homosexuality, drug addiction, mental health, psychotherapy, and spiritualism.

The relentless misogyny got a bit more wearing this time round. I'm guessing (hoping?) Philip Kerr was trying to capture the prevailing attitudes of 1938, but did he have to do it with quite so much apparent relish?

Smells are a theme throughout 'The Pale Criminal', not least the stench of official corruption that characterised Hitler's regime. This novel is more conventional and slightly less successful than 'March Violets' however it picked up significantly in the final third and leaves me feeling keen to continue with the next in the series - 'A German Requiem'.

Profile Image for Mark Capell.
Author 15 books56 followers
November 21, 2012
I thought I was done with reading the traditional hard-boiled detective. Perhaps I picked this up in a nostalgic mood. I think it was Mark Lawson who talked about the three Ds of hard boiled detective fiction - drink, depression and divorce. Yes, it might be a truism that a lot of detectives in real life suffer from all of these, but it's been done to death in detective fiction. I love the novels of Henning Mankell and Ian Rankin, whose detectives are similarly inflicted but recently I vowed not to read (or write) a detective with any 'D' whatsoever.

So why did I pick up this novel and why did I like it. I suppose it was the milieu that intrigued me. Setting a crime novel in 1930s Nazi Germany does raise the stakes and the moral temperature. The hero is your run-of-the-mill hard boiled detective but it was fascinating reading about him trying to do his job whilst fighting prejudice and the rule of the jackboot.

So, if like me you're tired of the three Ds, don't let that put you off. It's a very satisfying read.
Profile Image for Razvan Banciu.
1,095 reviews63 followers
August 23, 2023
A very interesting novel, which takes you in the Germany before the start of WII.
The plot is ok, Bernie is not so different from Marlowe, the lone antihero, there are some words of spirit, the final is bitter-sweet, so there are quite a few similarities with Raymond Chandler's books, which is far from being a negative thing.
Profile Image for Yigal Zur.
Author 10 books127 followers
December 1, 2020
one of the best of kerr. i am not sure if the best in the series but in a way maybe the most important one due to its subject. the moment the nazi regime decide to out their merciless hand on the jew life in Berlin. Bernie Gunter the Pi turned again policeman investigating a series of girl murders just to discover that it is a crazy nazi plot to point the finger towards jews on order to start their doom. but whatever the truth is nothing can be done to change the fate. based on true events and amazing reserch.
Profile Image for Lynn.
1,608 reviews47 followers
June 19, 2018
Jeez these books are grim. There's a great blending of fiction and history here: real people, book characters, real headlines and crimes mixed with fiction. I found it grim because I knew what would happen in November 1938 -- Kristallnacht. What could be more perfect for noir that Nazi Germany?
Profile Image for Eric_W.
1,924 reviews369 followers
December 1, 2008
Bernie’s investigations continue in The Pale Criminal. It’s a few years later and Hitler is about to move into Czechoslovakia. He is hired to find the blackmailer of a wealthy widow who owns a large publishing firm. Her son is being treated in a fancy sanitarium (psychotherapy has been ruled illegal by the Nazis — one of their few sensible actions) for his homosexual tendencies. As that persuasion has also been made illegal, he is a prime candidate for a concentration camp, so his mother is willing to make substantial payments to keep his secret. Heydrich, head of the SD, blackmails Bernie into returning to the Kripo (the regular German police), realizing that exdetective inspector Bernie is one of the few good detectives left in Berlin, the others having been liquidated from the force in favor of political appointees. Bernie also has no political or racial ax to grind, and someone in Berlin has been methodically killing teenage Aryan girls. The Jews who were routinely accused of the earlier crimes were in jail at the time of the later killings, so they could not have been responsible. Heydrich fears that if the news gets out, a general panic will result, making it look as if he cannot keep order. The evidence soon begins to point toward the complicity of Julius Streicher, hated Nazi mob boss and Bavarian bully. The killings all have a ritualistic element and Streicher’s sensationalist newspaper Der Stürmer has printed accusations and fake pictures of Jewish ritualistic murders that bear a striking resemblance to the real killings, details of which have not been released to the media. Bernie’s theory is that Streicher wants to incite a pogrom in Berlin against the Jews by blaming them for these horrid killings.
Profile Image for James.
528 reviews26 followers
December 5, 2017
I thought this book was brilliant - extremely well researched, as was March Violets, nuanced and layered with meaning and allusions. You never quite get a handle on the Bernie Gunther of this book - one minute he's pondering Baudelaire, the next he's fantasizing about an attractive woman.

I'm in awe of Philip Kerr's work in the first two books in the Bernie Gunther series. To set his character in pre-war Nazi Germany and to trace the society's descent into madness is nothing short of brilliant as far as I'm concerned. I have no hesitation in comparing Kerr to other excellent writers of historical fiction.

A word or two of caution to sensitive readers - Kerr's characters act, think and talk like people of their era likely acted, thought and talked. I've detected no hint of whitewashing the characters with modern (for the time the novel was written) sensibilities. While it may be unsettling, it's genuine and likely representative of the era.
Profile Image for Steve.
821 reviews237 followers
March 30, 2021
I neglected to write a review at the time of reading. Effective continuation of the first book, with tough detective Gunther negotiating the difficult waters of Nazi Germany. This time, almost unbelievably, he finds himself back on the police force. What follows is a crazy, pulpish story involving Nazi occult stuff, quack science, porn, drugs, and, sadly, the revealed fate of a great character from volume one. That said, Gunther is quite capable of missions of vengeance. Also noted is Kerr's ability to mix historical characters (often repulsive ones) with his fictional ones. He does, what is not all that easy to do (at least in a believable way), seamlessly. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Mark Harrison.
743 reviews21 followers
July 25, 2020
Very decent sequel to 'March Violets' as Bernie returns to the Police to investigate the brutal ritualistic murders of several young girls. Graphic violence and intrigue as he tries not to upset the SS but finds all roads making that harder and harder. Good read.
Profile Image for Dorothy.
1,359 reviews94 followers
April 23, 2018
"When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it." - Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett was the master of noir and Philip Kerr seemed determined to follow in his footsteps. But his series featuring gumshoe Bernie Gunther is set not on the mean streets of LA but on the meaner streets of Berlin in the era when National Socialism held sway. This second book in the series is set in the fall of 1938, the period leading up to the terror of Kristallnacht.

I read and reviewed the first book in the series, March Violets, in 2012 and I had intended to read more but just somehow never got around to it. Then I read last week that Kerr had recently died, although he was only in his early 60s. That was just the nudge that I needed to get back to Bernie Gunther and see what was happening with him.

What was happening was that he had taken on a partner in his private detective business. Their business consisted mostly of trying to find missing persons, as people had a way of frequently disappearing in the Berlin of 1938. But in his most recent case, he had been hired by a rich widow to find out who was blackmailing her. One night, while working on the case, his partner has a house under surveillance, and someone manages to surprise and kill the partner. In the words of that philosopher Sam Spade, Bernie needs to "do something" about it.

Before Bernie is able to do much, he is approached by KRIPO, the Berlin criminal police, to come back to work for them and help them find a serial killer. The killer is abducting teenage girls, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, perfect specimens of Aryan womanhood and raping and killing them in the most brutal manner. KRIPO had tried to frame an innocent Jew for the murders but that all went awry, much to their embarrassment, so now they need a good and unbiased detective to find out what really happened.

Bernie is induced to take the KRIPO job and the search is on for a sadistic killer.

Kerr methodically builds his plot line, including much historical background of the period. It is interesting to see the police and ordinary citizens going about their business during months in which we now know that the tension was building toward the outbreak of violence that came in November. We also follow the reports of "negotiations" between Germany, England, and France, and Germany's ultimate takeover of the Sudetenland.

Kerr presents his protagonist Bernie Gunther as non-racist and anti-Nazi, but Bernie could certainly not be described as an enlightened character. He is casually homophobic and misogynistic. He can't seem to address a woman without undressing her in his mind and imagining himself embraced by her thighs. He tolerates a certain amount of violence by the policemen under his supervision. There's no such thing as civil rights of the accused in Nazi Germany.

Bernie is, in short, a man of his times and one recognizes that the author appears to have made a conscious choice not to whitewash his characters. He presents them, warts and all, in the context of the brutal society in which they lived and by exploring their reactions to the events of their times, he is able to trace that society's descent into madness. There is a lot to digest here and much to give us pause, I think, about our own society.

I did find it somewhat irritating that the characters speak in their own period tough-guy patois, using jargon which one can only struggle to understand within the context of the action. I suppose using this language adds a certain amount of verisimilitude, but often I just find it distracting.
Profile Image for RJ - Slayer of Trolls.
824 reviews193 followers
September 16, 2021
"I'm no knight in shining armour. Just a weather-beaten man in a crumpled overcoat on a street corner with only a grey idea of something you might as well go ahead and call Morality. Sure, I'm none too scrupulous about the things that might benefit my pocket, and I could no more inspire a bunch of young thugs to do good works than I could stand up and sing a solo in the church choir. But of one thing I was sure. I was through looking at my fingernails when there were thieves in the store."

Like chocolate and peanut butter, hard-boiled detective stories make a perfect match with pre-WWII Nazi-governed Berlin where murder, beatings, rapes, thefts, kidnappings, and tortures are commonplace, and the biggest problem is trying to determine whether they were committed by criminals or the police. This middle book in the Berlin Noir trilogy isn't quite as tightly plotted as its predecessor but continues to blend fictional plot and characters with real-life people (Reinhard Heydrich, Julius Streicher, Heinrich Himmler, etc.) and events (the Munich Betrayal, Kristallnacht). The dark and often brutally violent subject matter will not be to all readers' tastes.
Profile Image for Χρύσα Βασιλείου.
Author 6 books151 followers
May 30, 2016
Το δεύτερο βιβλίο της "Τριλογίας του Βερολίνου" είναι ένα αμιγώς αστυνομικό μυθιστόρημα. Η ναζιστική Γερμανία συνεχίζει να είναι ο άξονας πάνω στον οποίο κινούνται τα πάντα,όμως αυτήν τη φορά οι ιστορικές αναφορές και πληροφορίες έρχονται σε δεύτερη μοίρα,και σε πρώτη η αστυνομική δράση.

Βρισκόμαστε στο 1938 και ο Μπέρνι Γκούντερ καλείται να επιστρέψει στην αστυνομία,προκειμένου να διαλευκάνει μια σειρά φόνων έφηβων κοριτσιών. Παράλληλα,αναλαμβάνει και μια υπόθεση εκβιασμού,ως ιδιωτικός ερευνητής. Οι δύο αυτές υποθέσεις συνδέονται με έναν τρόπο που θα ήταν αδύνατο να φανταστεί κάποιος, κι ο Μπέρνι θα το ανακαλύψει μόνο όταν θα αρχίσει να βάζει τα κομμάτια του παζλ στη σωστή τους σειρά.
Εξαιρετικά καλογραμμένο (καμία έκπληξη δεν προκαλεί αυτό σ' όποιον έχει διαβάσει κι άλλες περιπέτειες του Γκούντερ γραμμένες από τον Philip Kerr) και επίσης εξαιρετικά καλοδουλεμένο, ο "Χλωμός εγκληματίας" αποτελεί υπόδειγμα σκοτεινού νουάρ. Οι φαν του αστυνομικού θα εκτιμήσουν εδώ το βάρος που δίνει ο Kerr στην αστυνομική πλευρά της υπόθεσης,μιας υπόθεσης που δεν είναι και τόσο άγνωστη για το αστυνομικό μυθιστόρημα: εξαφανίσεις ατόμων,αναζήτηση ενός serial killer,πολλοί ύποπτοι,τίποτα που να είναι όπως φαίνεται. Το θετικό όμως είναι πως εδώ μιλάμε για τον Philip Kerr,οπότε το βιβλίο δεν θα μπορούσε να είναι μια απλή αστυνομική αφήγηση.
Ο συγγραφέας μπλέκει αριστοτεχνικά την πολιτική κατάσταση της Γερμανίας και την ελίτ των Ες Ες με την αστυνομική πλοκή,δημιουργώντας ένα γαϊτανάκι εξελίξεων και καταστάσεων που γοητεύει και συναρπάζει τον αναγνώστη. Ο Μπέρνι έχει για μια ακόμα φορά την ευκαιρία να αποδείξει πόσο καλός αστυνομικός επιθεωρητής είναι,αλλά και πόσο αταίριαστος στο γενικότερο περιβάλλον της γερμανικής αστυνομίας. Μιας αστυνομίας που διψάει για πόζα,αίμα και καταστροφή.

Το τέλος του βιβλίου ίσως αφήσει σε κάποιους μια πικρή γεύση,όμως είναι εμποτισμένο από το ύφος του Kerr και από την γενικότερη φιλοσοφία που ενστερνίζεται και ο -είρων,πολλές φορές-ήρωάς μας,ο Μπέρνι: πολλές φορές,η δικαιοσύνη και η αλήθεια δεν είναι αρκετές για να καθαρίσουν την βρωμιά της κοινωνίας και δεν υπάρχει σε όλες τις υποθέσεις το περιβόητο happy end.
Profile Image for Rowena Hoseason.
459 reviews22 followers
January 20, 2017
Philip Kerr wrote his original Berlin Noir trilogy nearly three decades ago and the Pale Criminal is the second in the series centred around Bernie Gunther. He's a cynical, sardonic detective haunted more by his own inadequacies than he could ever be intimidated by National Socialism.

The Gunther novels dependably provide a well-researched window into the life of a policeman in Nazi Germany, a skewed view of how historical events might’ve looked to der Mann auf der strasse; Kerr’s wicked ability to wield a sharp word to best effect.

This episode starts in 1938 when optimists were still hoping for the best while the wise prepared for the worst. PI Bernie is leaned on to return to Kripo, the criminal investigation arm of the police, to catch a serial killer. Inevitably it turns political: for everything in Germany at that time could hardly be otherwise. And if he locates the murderer, then Bernie will inevitably make implacable enemies among one or other fanatical factions…

This Bernie Gunther is a subtly different person to the one Kerr writes now – someone with a bitter, almost brittle edge to his dangerous humour. The plotting is tight and the pace feels faster, too; by modern standards this is a short novel which only helps to give it more impact.

The result is a vividly realised police procedural, wrapped inside a political thriller, disguised as an historical novel. The Pale Criminal excels on all three levels – and if you haven’t read any other Bernie Gunther novels then it works perfectly as a stand-alone.

There's a more in-depth version of this review over at
Profile Image for Sofia.
1,182 reviews213 followers
March 11, 2018
Unlike when a detective such as Gunther restores the world to it's usual frame by the end of the book, here we have Gunther fighting against windmills. Windmills who continue to gather in strength and deviousness. Shall Gunther continue, he must to survive, shall I continue to read, yes I will.

From the Author's Note
The Kristallnacht pogrom of 9 and 10 November 1938 resulted in 100 Jewish deaths, 177 synagogues burnt down and the destruction of 7,000 Jewish businesses. It has been estimated that the amount of glass destroyed was equal to half the annual plate-glass production of Belgium, whence it had originally been imported. Damages were estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Where insurance monies were paid to Jews, these were confiscated as compensation for the murder of the German diplomat, von Rath, in Paris. This fine totalled $250 million.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,599 reviews8,732 followers
August 19, 2012
Probably 3.5 stars. Well written, but there is only so much Nazi sadism, sex and violence I can stomach. Kerr certainly doesn't wallow in it, but there still is too much exposure to the violent fetishes of 1938 Germany for me to really say I enjoyed this novel. That said, it was well written and original in its plot and story. There are no lack of victims and criminals to populate this Berlin Noir story. Not a book I'd necessarily recommend to my friends and family, but not a novel I'd run from either. Now to go wash my hands and burn my bookmark.
Profile Image for Vasilis Kalandaridis.
365 reviews15 followers
August 11, 2015
Ο Bernie Gunther θα μπορούσε άνετα να ειναι πρόγονος του Harry Hole,ο Γερμανός θείος του,στο πιο νηφάλιο του βέβαια.Αλλά ειναι το ίδιο κυνικός,το ίδιο ζαμαν φου,το ιδιο διατεθειμένος να τσαλακωθεί.Έχω βάλει ήδη στόχο να διαβάσω όλα τα βιβλια του Kerr στα ελληνικά,εγώ είμαι της άποψης πως οταν βρεις ένα Φαϊ που σ'αρεσει δεν το κρατάς καβάντζα,το τρως μέχρι σκασμού.
Profile Image for Mayar El Mahdy.
1,612 reviews1 follower
February 15, 2019
Why am I doing this? Why do I read a book with whose main character acts like a mid-life crisis with a retarded sense of humor?

I hate Bernie Gunther, hated him here more than the first one even. Will I read the third book? I might, and I'll hate myself every moment of it.
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