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Literature / The Pale Criminal

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The Pale Criminal is a 1990 novel by Philip Kerr. It is the second novel in the Bernhard "Bernie" Gunther detective series.

Berlin, 1938, two years after the events of March Violets. The specter of war looms as Hitler is demanding that Czechoslovakia turn over the Sudetenland to Germany. Bernie Gunther is still working as a private detective. He's taken on a partner, his old police buddy Bruno Stahlecker, who has left the "Kripo" (criminal police) because he isn't an enthusiastic enough Nazi. They catch a case, when a wealthy publisher, Frau Lange, engages their services. Her son, Reinhard, is a homosexual, which in Nazi Germany is a criminal offense punishable by detention in a concentration camp. Someone has stolen the letters that Reinhard sent to his lover, noted psychiatrist Lanz Kindermann, and is selling them back to Frau Lange, one at a time.


That investigation reaches a sudden, violent end. Bernie, however, soon gets an entirely different case. None other than Reinhard Heydrich essentially forces Bernie to return to the Kripo to investigate a serial killer case. Someone has been going around Berlin, raping and murdering teenaged girls. Heydrich forces Bernie back into the police and charges him with hunting down and catching the killer. Bernie discovers a dark conspiracy with connections to the blackmail case.

The second book in the original "Berlin Noir" trilogy of Bernie Gunther novels, proceeded by March Violets and followed by A German Requiem.



  • All for Nothing: Bernie exposes the conspiracy to kill the girls, blame the Jews, and start an anti-Semitic pogrom. Except the pogrom, known to history as Kristallnacht, happens anyway, after a Jew shoots a German diplomat in Paris.
  • Autoerotic Asphyxiation: Bernie thinks about how death by hanging is almost always suicide, except the occasional case of accidental death while engaging in "sado-masochistic perversion".
  • Been There, Shaped History: As the Author's Note explains, Otto Rahn and Karl Weisthor both resigned from the SS, Rahn soon died under mysterious circumstances, and Julius Streicher was kicked out of office due to being too much of a scumbag even for the Nazis. These events, which happened in Real Life, are in the book due to Bernie's investigation.
  • Blackmail: Frau Lange is being blackmailed by a man who's demanding large payments for the love letters that her son sent to another man.
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  • Blowing Smoke Rings: The BdM girl (basically, Nazi Girl Scouts) who comes to Bernie's door collecting funds, blows "a perfect smoke-ring" in an effort to look more grown-up, as she's playing coquette for Bernie.
  • Buxom Is Better: Once again, Bernie Gunther shows his appreciation for a nice rack.
    • He admires the "pendulous breasts" of a nurse at the mental hospital.
    • Frau vom Hofe, the psychotherapist who profiles the killer, has "fine breasts which strained at the material of her blouse."
  • Call-Back: The first paragraph of the novel has Bernie wondering again what happened to his girlfriend, Inge Lorenz, who disappeared without a trace in March Violets. He finally finds out in this book, near the end, when he stumbles across her file in Kindermann's office. It turns out that Inge had a cocaine habit and she wound up choking on her own vomit after shooting up.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Reinhard Heydrich once sent Bernie to Dachau, so Bernie needs a smoke when facing Heydrich again. He lights his cigarette "nervously".
  • City Noir: Another tale of Berlin under the Nazism, as Hitler's evil befouls everything, with crime and corruption and brutality in every level of society and government.
  • Continuity Nod: When summoned to Gestapo headquarters, Bernie remembers being detained there in March Violets.
  • Distinguished Gentleman's Pipe: Subverted. Bernie's partner Bruno smokes a pipe, but Bernie finds pipes profoundly irritating.
    "Pipe smokers are the grandmasters of fiddling and fidgeting."
  • Dramatic Gun Cock: When Bernie answers the anonymous letter summoning him to a meeting in the burned-out Reichstag, he does this on purpose, noisily chambering a round in his Mauser to let whoever called him there know that he is armed.
  • Edgy Backwards Chair-Sitting: Becker, who is excited to deliver his report on the Emmeline Steininger case, turns a chair around and sits in it "with his forearms leaning on the back."
  • Evil Lawyer Joke: When Frau Lange says she doesn't care much for lawyers, Bernie agrees, saying "I never met a lawyer yet that wasn't above stealing his mother's savings and the mattress she was keeping them under."
  • Eye Scream: One of Bernie's police underlings gets trigger-happy, firing his gun at a fleeing suspect. The bullet goes through the suspect's head and out his eye socket, exploding his eyeball.
  • False Flag Operation: A particularly depraved one. There is no serial killer, not really. The series of murders is part of "Project Krist", a secret op by Rahn, Kindermann, and Weisthor, in which they murder German girls in a ritualistic way. They will then pin the murders on the Jews and use them as an excuse to start a pogrom.
  • Historical Domain Character: Arthur Nebe gives Bernie a heads-up that Heydrich has a job for him. Then Reinhard Heydrich himself pops up again, telling Bernie about the serial murders. Julius Streicher becomes a suspect in the murders. Heinrich Himmler appears at a seance. Then two real people, Otto Rahn and Karl Weisthor, turn out to be neck-deep in the conspiracy.
  • Hit Me, Dammit!: It turns out that Hildegarde is a masochist. They're about to have sex when she says "Hurt me, Bernie. Use me....Hurt me when I tell you." When he refuses to, she dumps him.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink:
    • Nebe tells Bernie that Josef Kahn, the Jew who was tortured into confessing to the killings, was murdered by the government in the T-4 "euthanasia" program. After Bernie reacts to this by pinching his nose and talking about how he gets headaches, Nebe pours two drinks.
    Bernie: Just when you thought that things couldn't get any worse, you find out that they've always been a lot worse than you thought they were. And then they get worse.
    • Bernie pours himself a glass of brandy after accidentally overhearing Kindermann and Rahn engaging in gay sex.
  • Just Following Orders: Another cop says they should publicize the killings to help protect the teenaged girls of Berlin. Bernie says that he can't, and that he's "only obeying orders." He then feels ashamed for using the typical "German excuse".
  • Never Suicide: Hering, the blackmailer, is found hanging from a beam in his apartment. All Bernie has to do is look at his neck and see a second, separate ligature mark, to figure out that Hering actually was strangled.
  • Phony Psychic: Karl Weisthor is a fake medium. He pretends to commune with the ghost of Emmeline Steininger, and reveals the location of her body. It's all part of a plot to pin the murders on the Jews and start an anti-Semitic pogrom.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Arthur Nebe is portrayed as this, as a man who has become disillusioned with Nazism and hopes to "change things from the inside". Given the ghastly crimes Nebe committed during the war this seems dubious, but he was part of the plot to kill Hitler in 1944.
  • Sarcasm Mode: When a Gestapo man angrily raps on Bernie's door at 4:30 am, he says "There was no mistaking their finishing-school manners."
  • Spiteful Spit: Hildegarde spits in Bernie's face when he refuses to hit her during sex.
  • Sudden Sequel Death Syndrome: Bruno, Bernie's old cop buddy who is an important character in March Violets, returns as Bernie's new partner. He is killed in Chapter 5 when the surveillance of the blackmailer goes horribly wrong.
  • Vigilante Man: Bernie, knowing that Weisthor and Rahn will probably escape punishment due to their membership in the SS, decides that Kindermann, at least, should pay. So Bernie shoots him to death.
  • You Just Told Me: How Bernie, who suspects treachery, gets Frau Lange to admit that her son has gotten the incriminating letters back.