For such a fat book — 528 dense pages — the 12th Bernie Gunther mystery is as brisk and agile as its German police detective protagonist. It moves back and forth between Nazi Germany in 1939 and the French Riviera in 1956, with two suspenseful tales that for a while seem unconnected but aren’t. Gunther is one of crime fiction’s most gratifyingly melancholy creations, and in “Prussian Blue” we watch him match wits with the officialdom of two Germanys, pre- and postwar. In both cases, there is plenty for Gunther to be melancholy about.
All detective fiction takes place in a political context — Chandler’s rotten-cop-dominated L.A., even Agatha Christie’s cozy villages where class often impedes justice — but there’s nothing quite so complex, and so fraught, as a cop with a conscience trying to do what’s right while working under the Nazis. It’s not that Berlin’s most accomplished police sleuth is guiltless. He makes moral compromises in order to survive. But as a nonparty member and known social democrat, what Gunther mainly does to stay out of prison is make himself indispensable.