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Book review: Solve a murder in a Nazi bastion and escape the Stasi like a super spy

In the 12th installment of his most captivating Bernie Gunther series, Philip Kerr brings our wise-cracking, sardonic but resourceful hero back to life in all his tarnished, tired but still irrepressible form.Some men can never outrun their past. It is not that their wrongdoings cannot be forgotten, but rather that their unique abilities which even their enemies, spanning the spectrum from Nazists to Communists, recognise and seek to utilise for their own ends. So is the case with this outspoken, irreverent but capable German ex-policeman.Bernie Gunther has survived over two decades of Nazi rule, World War II’s Russian front, Soviet captivity, the Cold War’s lethal attentions – from all its sides – service to Juan Peron and the American mafia in Battista’s Cuba, and now just wants a quiet life.

But his eccentric fate hasn’t yet finished with him, even in 1956. And in his latest appearance, Gunther learns – yet again – that the pathology of power remains the same, though the name, uniforms and even ideology may change, and today’s oppressed can easily become – and inevitably do – tomorrow’s oppressors.Fleeing Berlin with some help after a complex intelligence operation where he got even with those kicking him around, Gunther tries to live obscurely as concierge in a small hotel on the French Riviera. But soon, his unlikely helper – Erich Mielke, the dreaded second-in-command of East Germany’s Stasi – personally appears and threatens him to undertake a mission.

This entails going over to Britain and poisoning – by thallium no less – a covert woman agent, whom Gunther had deftly outsmarted in his previous outing (The Other Side of Silence, 2016). And just to keep him on his toes, Mielke has his men arrange a near-fatal hanging for him.But our hero is not one to give in tamely. While he goes along with Mielke’s assignment knowing they plan to execute him eventually, Gunther escapes from the train taking them towards the English Channel. The Stasi men are soon on his trail and since their leader is someone who knows Gunther too well – a former pre-war Berlin police colleague who was his aide in investigating a crime in Adolf Hitler’s hilltop Bavarian retreat in 1939 – keeping ahead will not be too simple.

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