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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bernie Gunther Returns in 'Field Gray'

Novelist Philip Kerr revisits his hard-boiled sleuth

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The epigraph to Philip Kerr's seventh Bernie Gunther novel, Field Gray (Putnam), is from Graham Greene's The Quiet American: "I don't like Ike." The choice of epigraph is as apt as it is pointed, for Greene did not like Americans, period, and neither does Bernie.

But then, Bernie does not like many nationalities. And with good reason: Members of most of them have been making his existence a living hell for years. He may dislike the French even more than Americans, because France, in his experience, was a fascist country during World War II and the French were as anti-Semitic as the Nazis of his native Germany.

Bernie has had lots of experience. He began literary life in 1989 as a police detective turned hard-boiled, wise-cracking private investigator in 1930s Germany in Kerr's "Berlin Noir" trilogy, which has since stretched itself to seven novels and to at least as many countries.

Field Gray
takes its title from the color of the German army uniform, which Bernie must don as an (involuntary) SS officer. But the novel begins shortly after the close of the previous one, If the Dead Rise Not, in 1954 Cuba, where Bernie has ended up after nearly two decades of perilous peregrination.

Those adventures were covered in still earlier novels, but Field Gray fills in details—not all of them complimentary to Bernie's character. At his core Bernie remains a once-and-future stoic white knight in the Chandler mode, but Philip Marlowe never had to take the kind of knocks that tarnish the physical, moral and emotional armor that life has thrown at Bernie.

Snatched by the CIA, Bernie is taken to Guantanamo for questioning (feel free to make comparisons with current-day snatchings and questionings there), then to New York, then to Europe. While the bulk of the book is set in 1954 Germany, it jumps back and forth in time (from 1931) and place (chiefly France and Russia). Yet it is not confusing and maintains an exciting, brisk pace while skillfully juggling the time frames.

The CIA is interested in two matters: Bernie's wartime activities and his prewar association with a real-life personage (one of dozens in the novel)—Erich Mielke, just beginning, in 1954, his rise to the top of the Stasi, East Germany's secret police. Here and elsewhere Bernie expresses contempt for Americans because of their postwar swaggering and "the unquestioning assumption of all Americans that they had right on their side—even when they were doing wrong." And on several occasions he had found them doing wrong.

Two leitmotifs run through the novel: a puzzling, 20-year-long, off-and-on relationship between Bernie and Mielke, and Bernie's role as a serial pawn in the power machinations of one country after another—Nazi Germany, France, the Soviet Union and the United States. Unlike the previous six novels, Field Gray is not about mundane crimes that Bernie investigates, but about monstrous crimes committed by the state and how and why even decent individuals are forced to collude in them.

It is, in short, about the difficulty, when faced by totalitarian terror, of remaining both (a) honorable and (b) alive.

Kerr is an absolute master at incorporating the reality of the past into his fiction of it, the facts as well as the spirit of the age. It is as if Kerr, steeped in knowledge of his subject, drops his characters and their activities into the maelstrom of a historical period, rather than taking the characters and plot and sticking on bits of period detail to lend verisimilitude.

This is, all in all, a kind of stocktaking of Bernie's life. So does this portend the last of him? Every series—books, TV or whatever—must come to an end, and it is best that they do so before jumping the shark. But there are signs that Kerr plans an eighth entry in the series—a sensible move, for at age 58 Bernie remains bloodied but unbowed, and there is not a shark in sight.
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