Prussian Blue is the twelfth novel by Philip Kerr to feature the character Bernie Gunther––one-time Berlin detective, some-time war renegade, and is one of my favourite books in the series.
I have seen reviews of Prussian Blue, which draw comparisons with two classic thrillers: Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household and The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. However, I suspect that it is only one of these books, which provided Philip Kerr with some of the inspiration for the plot of Prussian Blue.
Generally, I do not approve of the school of literary criticism, which speculates about an author’s ideas and motivations, particularly an author who is not in a position to confirm or refute the suggestions and, very sadly, Philip Kerr’s death in March 2018 places him in that unenvious position. Nevertheless, I am going to push on with my hypothesis regardless, with the caveat of a heartfelt apology to Philip Kerr if I am in any way misrepresenting his creative processes.
For me, Prussian Blue is a clever dissection of Rogue Male. Rogue Male is widely regarded as being one of the best thrillers of the 20th century, and there are too many parallels between Geoffrey Household’s classic and Prussian Blue for it to be coincidental.
For anyone who has never read the book––or seen the 1976 film starring Peter O’Toole––Rogue Male is the tale of an English ‘sportsman’ who attempts to assassinate a European dictator––we’re talking Hitler––at his country retreat, and then who is forced to go on the run across Europe, where he is relentlessly pursued by the aforementioned dictator’s henchmen. What Philip Kerr does in Prussian Blue is to take the essential ingredients of the Rogue Male plot and to split them into two separate stories, both starring in the lead role that eternal anti-hero Bernie Gunther.
At the risk of repeating myself, for anyone who has never read the book, Prussian Blue entwines two distinct narratives, one set in 1939; the other in 1956. The earlier story sees Bernie summoned to investigate the mysterious shooting of an architect at Hitler’s Berchtesgaden retreat; the second story finds Bernie as a fugitive fleeing the East German Stasi.
Philip Kerr effectively places Bernie Gunther in the role of both the investigating officer of the Rogue Male assassination attempt and that of the assassin himself, desperately fleeing across Europe, trying to keep one step ahead of retribution. Bernie is both the anonymous ‘sportsman’ fugitive and the hunter Major Quive-Smith.
The similarities between the two books are striking. There is the long-range rifle assassination, and the Central European mountainous locale; and there is the pursuit across Europe, pursued by an ingenious and implacable enemy, backed by the formidable powers of a dictatorial state. Then there are smaller details: Rogue Male ends with a showdown in a claustrophobic underground chamber in the western corner of Dorset; Prussian Blue concludes with a shoot-out in the dark and labyrinthine Schlossberg caves of Homberg. In both books, the silent character of a woman is central to the plot: in Rogue Male, it is the fiancée of the aristocratic assassin, whose death at the hands of the European dictatorship provides his motivation for revenge; in Prussian Blue it is Bernie’s ex-lover, Anne French, who we first meet in The Other Side of Silence and who the Stasi want killed. Most tellingly, the fugitive in Rogue Male famously befriends a feral cat called Asmodeus, whose death provides the sportsman with a means to his own salvation; similarly, whilst hiding in Freyming-Merlebach, Bernie encounters a stray cat, which also becomes a victim, but also an agent for his ultimate escape.
I think that Asmodeus would have been secretly pleased by his oblique revival in Prussian Blue. Although he would have been far too cool a cat ever to show it.
© Fergus Longfellow
Fergus Longfellow recommends anyone to read both Rogue Male and Prussian Blue.