Mysteries and thrillers set in the years surrounding and during our two world wars have become a cottage industry. From Ken Follett's "Eye of the Needle" in the 1980s to recent novels by Charles Todd and Jacqueline Winspear, the standouts blend enough history with the genre's more familiar elements to keep readers enlightened and entertained.
Philip Kerr has achieved that alchemy through seven books in the Bernie Gunther series while advancing his complex hero to the Cold War. In "Prague Fatale" (Marion Wood/Putnam: 401 pp., $26.95), Kerr backtracks to 1941. Bernie is roused from suicidal thoughts caused by his intelligence work in Belorussia because of two Berlin murders, the charms of a beautiful hat check girl attacked by one of the dead men and a summons to Prague by hated SS Gen. Reinhard Heydrich.
Newly named Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, Heydrich has commandeered a castle once owned by a Jewish sugar baron and patron of artist
Bernie is soon investigating a murder, only it's Capt. Albert Kuttner, one of Heydrich's four adjutants. Kuttner's body is found in his locked bedroom after a booze-fueled party that leaves the guests hung over and unable to hear the gunshots. But after interacting with houseguests like Nazi villains Richard Hildebrandt, Col. Walter Jacobi and the Prague Gestapo's Hans Ulrich Geschke, Bernie is faced with the bigger conundrum — how does one find a murderer in a castle full of criminals?
Echoing the work of
Another kind of price is exacted in
After Lysander's ingenious escape from Vienna and return to his London acting career, Munro reappears to collect on the loan, coercing Lysander to enlist in the British Army and fake his own death as prelude to a dangerous mission in Geneva. He wants Lysander to unmask an agent leaking information to the Germans. The resulting action tests the young man's courage and sense of loyalty in ways far beyond his imagination.
Although the novel suffers from a few too many coincidences and a too-leisurely pace, Boyd (a literary novelist best known to genre readers for "Any Human Heart" and "Restless") does an admirable job evoking the sensuality of avant-garde Vienna, battlefield horrors and the early days of British spycraft. But it is the evolution of a nation that is finally the most compelling feature of "Waiting for Sunrise." Like Lysander Rief, England at the end of the Great War has moved from the sunshine-clear distinction between good and evil into the shadows, where it is almost impossible to distinguish friend from foe and traitors from those who love us.