A Conversation with Philip Kerr: Prague Fatale

April 2012 ~ Courtesy of Marian Wood Books/G.P. Putnam's Sons.

Q: In last year’s FIELD GRAY, which has just been nominated for an Edgar Award as the best hardcover mystery novel of 2011, we find Bernie Gunther moving through three different time periods and settings in the course of the story—a P.O.W. camp on the Eastern front during WWII, Berlin on the eve of the Russian occupation, 1950s Cuba, and Cold War Germany. But in PRAGUE FATALE, which is something of a prequel to FIELD GRAY, we find Bernie largely confined to the setting of Reinhard Heydrich's commandeered estate outside Prague. Was it your conscious choice from the start to keep this novel on a much more contained stage? And was it more or less of a challenge to frame the story in that manner?

A: Having moved Bernie around a lot in FIELD GRAY, I thought I'd tried the patience of my readers enough; but also there was no reason to move him any further than Prague, which I'd always wanted to visit, and write about; especially Heydrich's house. Apart from the assassination there's very little written about that period 1941/42, and so I wanted to do it before anyone else did. I also set myself the challenge of creating a kind of Agatha Christie-like scenario for Bernie. He's normally very urban, metropolitan; and I liked the idea of taking him to the country. The most important thing however was to break the cycle of each novel having some sequentially chronological aspect to it. I never wanted them to be in any kind of chronological order and the great thing about FIELD GRAY was that it set that into motion by starting as far back as 1932. From now on I feel free to set the novels anywhere.

Q: Speaking of Heydrich, your portrait of him in PRAGUE FATALE somehow manages to turn him into the most charismatic evil creature of any novel in memory. Was that an intentional effect you sought? Or did he somehow just emerge from your imagination that way? Surely there is nothing in the historical record to suggest that Heydrich possessed such wry panache…

A: With any real character from history, no matter how monstrous they are, you have to find their humanity first in order to write about them well. So I read pretty much everything that has been written about him. By all accounts most of the Nazis were afraid of him; I think he was clever and ruthless whereas Himmler was weird and sadistic. Himmler had one of those awful lampshades made out of human skin; it's impossible to imagine Heydrich having such a thing. Don't get me wrong. I don't like anything about the man. But it was to be admitted that he was courageous; his Luftwaffe record speaks for itself. And humorous? Yes, albeit in a very black way. And I think you could say that there is certain panache about a man who behaves like that, and also fences, plays the violin (very well), rides, flies, skis, and enjoys the novels of Agatha Christie.

Q: You have created some memorable female characters in the previous Bernie Gunther novels, but the cunning Arianne Tauber is an especially vibrant figure. Does she stand as one of your own favorite creations as well? It raises the question of whether you ever regret having to dispose of any of these wonderful femmes fatales, as inevitably you must… I suspect Bernie doesn’t even mind having suffered at their hands that much.

A: Yes, I like Arianne a lot. But I also liked Noreen. I can't ever see Bernie as a happily married man. He is married in A GERMAN REQUIEM, and THE ONE FROM THE OTHER but it's hardly happy. I think the women are getting better to be honest. I like writing about women.

Q: The research you must do to set the stage accurately for the Bernie novels must be prodigious… Certainly for PRAGUE, which features more than a dozen Nazi characters whose names are part of the War’s historical record, you had the dual challenge of first selecting a list of likely players to be cast at Heydrich's country estate, and then imagining how these Nazi officers, many of whom were directly competitive with each other, might interact in that enclosed setting. Do you look forward to the research element of writing these books, or does that feel like more of a task for you?

A: I'm not sure I look forward to it. I like the writing part most of all. But there's a certain satisfaction to be had in trying to get things right. In looking for little nuggets of research gold. I feel like a prospector sometimes, panning in a river up in the Yukon. That's why I would never employ a professional researcher. I might miss something important, the serendipity factor. (Love that word.) With all of the officers at Heydrich's house I did my best to find out everything about them. As you can imagine they were a pretty loathsome bunch, with one or two exceptions. Once I had visited the house it was a lot easier to visualize them all there. The house is closed to the public and more or less derelict. It was a secret weapons facility under the communists which may account for the fact that it's difficult to gain entry. Nothing of the original interior remains however. But there are photographs.

Q: It may be premature to ask this, but what will the setting be for Bernie’s next adventure? And what timeframe? Based on your last five novels that feature him, it feels as though Bernie could pop up almost anywhere, in any era.

A: At the moment I am researching the Katyn Forest massacre. The site was discovered by the German army in 1943 and much was made of it by Goebbels' propaganda machine: you know, "the murdering Reds," that kind of thing. I am planning a trip to nearby Smolensk when things get a bit warmer out there.