Monday, 14 March 2022

Tension grows as publication draws closer

Another totally gratuitous blogpost this week I’m afraid, as this Thursday, March 17, sees publication of my next novel, NEVER SEEN AGAIN. For those who think I may be carrying this thing a bit far, that it’s all a tad self-indulgent to keep going on about this, that you’ve heard it all before, yadda yadda … I can only apologise.

The best we authors can usually hope for is to have one of our books published each year (though sometimes two … you never know), so I’m very excited. And anyway, all kinds of things are happening, so it’s not like I’ve nothing new to report.

In keeping with today’s theme, exciting thrillers, I’m also pleased today to offer a detailed review and discussion of the late, great Philip Kerr’s very classy period piece, THE PALE CRIMINAL.

As usual, if the Kerr review is your main interest, you’ll find it at the lower end of today’s post in the Thrillers, Chillers section.

Almost time

Before then, we’re going to talk about the near-imminent publication of NEVER SEEN AGAIN, which, even if I say so myself, is a beautiful thing. Here is a shot of me holding in my hand the very first one off the press.

In addition to that, as you can see topside, an exciting looking blog tour commences today. 

I adore these. For those unfamiliar with the concept, in each case, on each day, a different blogger will offer a review and/or a bit of incisive chit-chat about the title in question (and this time, of course, it happens to be mine). Either way, review or gossip, these book-blogger folks do a sterling job. They really are one of the best methods we have for getting the word out these days. I always appreciate it when I’ve got a new title due, and quality book-persons like these come on board and put in a good word. Many thanks to all those involved.

Not that NEVER SEEN AGAIN hasn’t already passed through the hands of quite a few august individuals. You may have noticed that it’s accrued some great quotes from fellow authors I really rate. 

Check these out.

Exceptional crime writing. Paul Finch continues to raise the bar.
MW Craven

A spine-chilling mystery from the master of suspense.
MJ Arlidge

This might be Finch’s best yet … Grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go.
PL Kane

A cracking crime thriller that builds to an action-packed finale. Guaranteed to elevate your heart-rate!
David Jackson

I should also say, and this is the bit where today’s post REALLY gets self-indulgent, that with three days still to go, we now have some very effusive write-ups on NETGALLEY

Here are a few choice quotes:

It is so tense that I had to keep putting it down for a breather. *****
Elaine T

The story is paced perfectly, the underlying mystery so carefully threaded throughout the book that it kept me completely engrossed in the story. *****
Jen L

One of the best thrillers I have read in a long time and in my opinion the best book I have read by this author. *****
Peggy B

Gripping and compelling with an engaging storyline and explosive characters. *****
Ariah H

I felt very honoured to read these, as the whole purpose of NETGALLEY is that reviewers participating are required to give a completely honest appraisal. It’s not in their interest to fib for the sake of the author or publisher; they would gain nothing from that. My heartfelt thanks to all, so far and still to come, who have taken a chance on NEVER SEEN AGAIN.

A bit of a bargain

I also hear, by the way, that there is a nice little bargain on the horizon.

Apparently, my stand-alone crime thriller of 2020, ONE EYE OPEN, will be available on Audible for ONLY £3 as part of a special promotion this Wednesday (March 16).

Yes, you read that correctly. ONLY £3.

For those of us who like to receive our fiction while we’re out walking the dog, or working on a treadmill, or driving on the motorway, or even riding an inter-city train, that’s got to be something to consider, yeah?

For those unaware, ONE EYE OPEN features a character who, at the time, was new to my books, DS Lynda Hagen, a former detective now turned road traffic accident investigator (primarily so that she can look after her kids and deal with her neurotic husband), who attends what appears to be a routine smash on the A12 in Essex, only to find a big mystery, which soon leads her down a rabbit hole into a terrifying world of armed robberies and organised crime.

As I say, the Audible version of ONE EYE OPEN, as performed by Louise Brealey, can be yours for the remarkable sum of £3 for one day only, March 16 (no coincidence, I suspect, that this is the day before we launch NEVER SEEN AGAIN).


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

by Philip Kerr (1990)

Berlin, 1938. Bernie Gunther, a former homicide detective now self-employed as a private eye, is working less than inspiring cases. Though he’s recently enlisted another ex-cop, Bruno Stahlecker, as his assistant, things still aren’t too exciting. They are currently investigating an attempted blackmail against the head of a major publishing company whose homosexual son has been writing indiscreet letters to his lover, a noted scientist called Lanz Kinderman.

It all seems pretty mundane and the two detectives finally break the case when they trace the letters to Klaus Hering, one of Kinderman’s recently dismissed employees. But during the course of this fairly innocuous enquiry, the likeable Stahlecker is shot and killed and a short time later, Hering, the main suspect, found hanged, presumably by his own hand.

Almost immediately afterwards, maybe coincidentally (or maybe not), the disheartened Gunther receives an order to attend Gestapo headquarters, where he meets two people who really existed in history, Arthur Nebe, head of the Kriminalpolizei, or Kripo, the Criminal Police Force of Nazi Germany, and more unnervingly, Reinhard Heydrich, Chief of Reich Security, a senior SS member and already a figure of terror to many.

However, for the moment, neither Nebe nor Heydrich are concerned with an issue of state; for once it is something a little more mundane, though it is bothering them a great deal. It hasn’t been publicised much, but a serial killer is operating in Berlin, sexually murdering school-age girls, specifically those who fit the Aryan ideal, i.e. pretty, blonde and blue-eyed.

With the force’s current batch of detectives unable to stop the atrocities, and in fact being made a mockery of, Gunther is commanded to reorganise the enquiry and take the role of lead investigator.

Unwilling to voluntarily assist the Nazi authorities, but seeing this cause as worthy (and given little choice in the matter anyway), he is reinstated to the police at the rank of Kriminalkommissar and given a dedicated team of Gestapo officers to work underneath him, including the crude, womanising Becker and the stiff but more-useful-than-expected Korsch.

Assisted (though sometimes hindered as well) by this misaligned bunch, Gunther works his way through a plethora of leads, all of which seem promising at first.

When Joseph Kahn is brought in, a Jewish oddball, who on the face of it at least seems a very likely suspect, an investigating psychiatrist casts doubt on his guilt and in fact Kahn commits suicide in custody, only for the real killer to then strike again.

Another possibility, one that Gunther likes particularly, centres around Gottfried Bautz, an ex-military fanatic with a long track-record of sexual violence, but yet again, Bautz is in custody when the prolific killer claims another victim.

And then the case takes a turn that none of the detectives are comfortable with.

From forensic investigations carried out by skilled pathologist, Hans Illman, it is concluded that all the murder victims to this point have been hung upside down and allowed to drain of blood. The cops purposely withhold this intelligence from the public, only to have their attention drawn to a grotesque cartoon in the widely-read Nazi propaganda periodical, Der Stürmer, depicting ‘German victims of Jewish violence’, all of them young women, all of them ritually strung upside down and allowed to bleed out.

Its publisher, Julius Streicher, a rabid and violent anti-Semite (and again a real historical personality), is a man of gross sexual habits, and despised by almost everyone who knows him as a boor and a brute. So, when a witness statement places a Streicher lookalike close to several of the crime scenes, it feels as if Gunther at last has a viable suspect. However, Julius Streicher also happens to be a senior administrator in Hitler’s government and, as Gauleiter of Franconia, a virtual czar in his home town of Nuremberg, which sits in the very centre of the Nazi heartland …

There are 14 Bernie Gunther novels, of which The Pale Criminal was the second, all written by the late British author, Philip Kerr, though the first three, something of an entity in themselves, were published much earlier than the rest, between 1989 and 1991. Such was their acclaim that in crime-fiction circles even now they are referred to as the ‘Berlin Noir trilogy’.

And that is completely the atmosphere that Philip Kerr sought to create. His pre-war Berlin is a maze of dark and winding backstreets, drinking holes of ill repute and seedy stairways ascending to decayed garrets wherein prostitutes and pornographers can be found. Meanwhile, in Bernie Gunther, Kerr gave us a youngish (going on middle-aged) protagonist, hardened by his previous experiences as a soldier and a cop, with no loved ones to speak of (none of whom are alive), no real talent other than his ability to catch crooks, and an outlook on life that is cynical and wry, but also relaxed. He’s a tough cookie who instinctively believes the worst of people, but he has a grim sense of humour, which manifests in regular and amusing wisecracks.

Like the Chandler-esque heroes on whom he is based, he also has a deep mistrust of authority, so much so that he’s now his own man, still chasing bad guys but mostly independently, as wary of the police and judiciary as he is the underworld.

Of course, in Gunther’s case there is a genuine, full-on reason for this. The civilian police force he joined after being demobbed from the army at the end of World War One is now under the control of the totalitarian Nazi regime. Every day, the freedoms Germans enjoyed during the Weimar Republic are being curtailed, and with Hitler’s constant provocations aimed overseas, the next war doesn’t feel very far off.

It’s ironic, therefore, that in The Pale Criminal, Gunther finds himself with no option but to assist these Swastika-clad bullies in their hunt for a monster of the street-level variety.

And to be frank, I don’t blame Kerr for taking this diversion. Because which purveyor of historical crime fiction could resist the inclusion in their latest novel of such real-life personalities as Heydrich, Himmler and Julius Streicher? And it doesn’t stop there. Much like Chris Petit with his exceptional The Butchers of Berlin (even though that was written 25 years later), Kerr revels in the opportunity to breathe life into some of the great villains of history.

To a degree, this goes exactly the way you’d expect. Top cop Arthur Nebe, for example, who though in later life he was hanged for his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler, was regarded by the Allies as a Holocaust facilitator who would likely have faced prosecution had he lived so long, and in this book he embodies that role, appearing as a classic fence-sitter. Otto Rahn and Karl Weisthor, meanwhile, though SS officers, were also known for their bizarre behaviour and occult obsessions, and in Kerr’s hands this is taken to new extremes, the pair of them portrayed not just as fanatics, but as individuals who are quite patently insane. Meanwhile, Julius Streicher, or ‘Jew-Baiter Number One’ as he liked to term himself, is every inch the ill-mannered cur that he was regarded as during his actual life, while with Himmler, though this book mostly concentrates on his fascination with mysticism and so depicts him in less belligerent form than usual, we still get the feeling that below his calm exterior lies a dangerous madman.

But it is Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague and chairman of the infamous Wannsee Conference, whose presence in this novel I found most intriguing. In real life, of course, Reinhard Heydrich was killed in 1942 by Czech commandos, and at the time considered no loss to humanity due to his irredeemably evil reputation. In Kerr’s version, however, we see a much more reflective character. An arch-controller who we’re in no doubt can authorise violence at the drop of a hat, but a man serious about his role as a government official, someone who doesn’t want war with the Allies and who sees it as his duty to maintain order and stability in the new Germany … even to the extent where he is concerned that pogroms against the Jewish community might damage the economy. In fact, this is the entire reason behind his hiring of Gunther, a proven homicide cop, who is separate from the main police and can be relied upon to bring in this brutal slayer of Aryan daughterhood without the blame being passed to the Jews.

This is certainly not the utterly ruthless and anti-semitic Heydrich that I thought I knew from history, but then The Pale Criminal is set in 1938, and maybe it’s the case that many of these extreme Nazi villains only grew into those roles gradually as absolute power absolutely corrupted them. (It could also be a double-bluff, I suppose, because if Heydrich genuinely was ambivalent to the Jews in his early days, his willingness to annihilate them only a few years later more than hints at a deeply disturbed personality).

But that’s The Pale Criminal and how it relates to history.

What about the story itself?

Well, like all good mysteries, it’s a page-turner. Kerr focusses tightly on the investigation, the twists coming thick and fast, many of the lesser characters simply servicing the plot though they’re all very visible and believable.

Gunther himself makes an appealing hero, though a warning in advance. This book is set in the 1930s and subsequently contains few modern attitudes. Homosexuality was illegal then even in Britain (and viciously punished in Nazi Germany), and that’s on full display here. At the same time, the police use violence routinely, both against people and property. Interrogation of suspects includes lots of roughhouse – and Gunther participates in this as much as the others. He’s also guilty of lusting after almost every woman he meets, including a high-ranking female psychologist and even Hildegard Skeininger, the beautiful but heartbroken mother of one of the child victims … though to be fair to Gunther, he’s never especially ungentlemanly.

Kerr’s writing style is always accessible and there are few complexities in the case, the story bouncing along at a jaunty pace against an ongoing atmosphere of menace provided by the Nazis but studded with occasional and welcome bouts of humour.

I earlier mentioned Chris Petit’s dark masterpiece, The Butchers of Berlin, but the tone here is far lighter than that. In The Pale Criminal, Germany has not yet descended into a fiery wartime Hell. You really get the impression that well within the living memory of almost everyone in the book, this society had once been civilised and democratic, and that many of the officials our main character encounters haven’t yet adjusted from that. Life for many goes on as normal.

All round, this is an excellent and atmospheric thriller. There are no massive surprises, but it’s a fast, compelling read, its authentic historical setting adding much more than lurid background colour.

And now my usual folly. I’m going to imagine The Pale Criminal as a movie or TV show, and cast it right in front of you. I don’t know if anyone’s ever attempted this in real life, but I’d be delighted if they did

Bernie Gunther – Tim Roth
Hildegard Skeininger – Teresa Palmer
Professor Hans Illman – Christoph Waltz
Julius Streicher – Gary Oldman
Arthur Nebe – Philip Jackson
Frau Lange – Emily Watson
Reinhard Heydrich – Hugo Weaving
Becker – Alex Høgh Andersen
Korsch – Tom Felton
Rolf Vogelman – Thomas Gabrielsson
Otto Rahn – Joseph Fiennes
Karl Weisthor – Rhys Ifans
Lanz Kinderman – Bill Nighy

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