Historical novels that cast light on the Third Reich that are also entertaining detective stories

The Nuremberg Trials that brought some of Hitler’s top cronies and collaborators to justice were a long, tragic time in coming. Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels include insightful portraits of many of them.

Philip Kerr’s series of historical novels featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther span the years of Hitler’s rise to power, German rearmament in the 1930s, World War II, the post-war years in Germany, and the flight of top-ranked Nazis to South America. Twelve Bernie Gunther novels have been published to date. A thirteenth, Greeks Bearing Gifts, is due to be issued in 2018.

Top Nazis figure in every one of these novels, and his portraits of them are convincing. His protagonist, ace homicide investigator Bernie Gunther, is in some ways a standard-issue tough cop like those who populated the crime fiction of the 1930s and 1940s. He’s a big guy who can usually take care of himself in a fight. He’s cynical — what used to be called a “wise guy” — who is prone to run his big mouth far more often than he should. He repeatedly finds his way to the beds of beautiful women. And, of course, he is brilliant at his work.

But Bernie serves a larger literary purpose. A social democrat who never consented to join the Nazi Party, he’s a foil for the never-ending parade of high-ranking Nazis he meets in the course of his investigations. Bernie isn’t just a non-Nazi; he’s openly anti-Nazi, and he doesn’t care who knows it. Somehow, improbably, he has managed to survive more than two decades in conflict with the Nazi leadership. His consummate skill as a detective saves him every time.

Below are the dozen Bernie Gunther novels that have appeared in the series to date. You can access what I’ve written about them by clicking on the link to the right of each review.

  1. March Violets (1989), set in 1936: A vivid snapshot of Nazi Berlin
  2. The Pale Criminal (1990), set in 1938: A serial killer in Nazi Germany
  3. A German Requiem (1991), set in 1947–48: Another excellent novel in the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr
  4. The One from the Other (2006), set in 1949: An anti-Nazi detective in Hitler’s Germany
  5. A Quiet Flame (2008), set in 1950: An eye-opening detective novel about Nazis in Argentina
  6. If the Dead Rise Not (2009), set in 1934 and 1954: From Hitler’s Germany to Batista’s Cuba
  7. Field Gray (2010), set in 1954, with flashbacks over 20 years: Bernie Gunther’s life in flashbacks
  8. Prague Fatale (2011), set in 1941: A hard-boiled detective in Nazi Germany
  9. A Man Without Breath (2013), set in 1943: Mass murder in the Katyn Forest
  10. The Lady from Zagreb (2015), set in 1942–43 and 1956: Cynicism and romanticism in Nazi Germany
  11. The Other Side of Silence (2016), set in 1956: An exciting chapter in the Bernie Gunther saga
  12. Prussian Blue (2017), set in 1939 and 1956: In Philip Kerr’s latest, Bernie Gunther confronts top Nazis and the Stasi