So to the seventh Bernie Gunther novel, Field Grey, by Scottish author Philip Kerr.
Like many Gunther fans I was chomping at the bit to read it for this series marries my near obsession of all things World War 2 with hardboiled detective fiction. Bernie Gunther is a brilliantly drawn, flawed character whose story is played out in Nazi Germany, The Ukraine during the war, POW camps as well as post war Austria, Argentina, Cuba, France and Germany. Kerr is able to evoke the period so well, so cinematically, and his ability to weave fiction with real life events and characters really makes for a cracker of a yarn.
When the original trilogy was completed in the early 90s I was devastated for great thriller series don’t come around too often, even less so historical thrillers. Anyway my disappointment was displaced because Kerr went back to the series in 2006 and since then we’ve had four more novels. Another one, Prague Fatale, is apparently due out in the Autumn.
Field Grey differs in one key area from all the others in the series; there is no murder to solve. Rather, in this novel, Kerr concentrates on delving into the murky wartime past of Gunther himself, times that were merely brushed over in previous novels. The vehicle for this probe into his past is the story of Erich Mielke, a communist who Gunther saved from a beating by SA thugs in Berlin, who went on to murder two policemen, Paul Anlauf and Franz Lenck, in 1931 and eventually became head of the Stasi in post-war East Germany. A perfect example of how Kerr weaves Gunthers fictional life into the lives of real life characters.
The novel kicks off in sunny Cuba in 1954 with Bernie, ex-Kripo detective, reluctant SS member, wanted war criminal and unwilling spy for Cuban intelligence – he has to spy on Meyer Lansky, the Mafias accountant, who controlled the gambling concessions in Cuba under the Batista,regime – feeling increasingly vulnerable and tired of being on the run. He decides to escape by boat to Haiti however his departure is ill – timed and he’s intercepted by the US Navy. After time in Guantanamo prison he’s passed onto US intelligence. From New York he’s flown back to Berlin and exhaustively interrogated about his war time activities in France and the Ukraine. It is then that we start to learn of Bernies wartime activities and the atrocities he was part of on the Eastern front. As a result of the interrogations he is given a clear choice: help French intelligence identify a wanted war criminal or go on trial and face the consequences. Always the pragmatist, Bernie once again becomes the pawn in a larger game as his past catches up and threatens to overwhelm him.
However this plot device only serves to open up the unheard story of Bernies’ wartime experience and his relationship with Erich Mielke. It has all the bravado of previous books, the set pieces make for great reading and, as with the entire series, you find yourself immersed in the lifes of the characters and the history of the time. For someone like me this tension between fiction, fact and history is the singular achievement of these novels and Field Grey does not disappoint. Philip Kerr has done his research and although clearly exhaustive it is worn lightly on every page.
If you haven’t read any of the books in the series I urge you to do so. Now. You don’t have to start with ‘March Violets’ (his first one) just be sure you read them all. They make for perfect holiday reading. Especially on a gloomy, wet day when you don’t have to make an excuse to stay in and can instead curl up on the couch and jump straight into war torn Europe
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