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 Gustav Klimt and invited a dozen high-ranking SS officers for a weekend of good food and liquor, a rarity in war-deprived Germany. But a recent poisoning attempt has prompted Heydrich to ask his “friend” to serve as his personal bodyguard, an offer Bernie dare not refuse. “Working for Heydrich,” Bernie notes, “was like being friendly with a vicious tomcat while you were looking around for the nearest mouse hole.”
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 Agatha Christie, Kerr plumbs the locked-room mystery device and applies his extensive knowledge of German history to unearth the dirt, political and personal, of a cast of real-life villains while revealing a deeper mystery that Bernie must solve though at a price almost too great to pay.
Another kind of price is exacted in William Boyd’s “Waiting for Sunset” (Harper: 353 pp., $25.99), the tale of a young actor swept into World War I and the nascent British intelligence effort. In 1913 Vienna, on a “lemony” August day full of “that possibility of audacity,” 27-year-old Lysander Rief sits in the waiting room of a Sigmund Freud disciple, seeking the “Vienna cure” for a sexual ailment he fears will make him an unsuitable husband. Among the other clients in the analyst’s waiting room is the captivating Hettie Bull, a high-strung beauty who is as aggressive and bold as her name. Despite Hettie’s jealous lover, Lysander and Hettie fall into an erotic affair that, not surprisingly, seems to cure him. It also exposes him to a rape charge that sends him running for help from Allwyn Munro, another of the analyst’s patients, who happens to work for the British Embassy. Munro loans him bail money, but “not interest-free, alas.”
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.
Woods is the author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series.