Book review: "Field Gray: A Bernie Gunther Novel," by Philip Kerr. Putnam, $25.95.
April 20, 2011 4:00 AM
By Roger K. Miller
The epigraph to Philip Kerr's seventh Bernie Gunther novel 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 since 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.
(Come to that, he doesn't like Greene, either, having seen him fondling a prostitute in a Havana brothel.)
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, having been a soldier in World War I, must wear again for II as an (involuntary) SS officer. But this 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 travels.
Those adventures were covered in earlier novels. "Field Gray" fills in details, not all of them complimentary to Bernie's character, tarnished by the physical, moral and emotional armor that life has thrown at him.
This time, Bernie is snatched by the CIA and taken to Guantanamo for questioning -- feel free to make any 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 the real-life Erich Mielke, just beginning, in 1954, his rise to the top of the Stasi, East Germany's secret police.
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, including Bernie, are forced to collude in them.
It is, in short, about the difficulty, when faced by totalitarian terror, of remaining both honorable and alive.
Mr. Kerr is a master at incorporating the reality of the past into his fiction of it, the facts as well as the spirit of the age.
This novel, all in all, is a stocktaking of Bernie's life. So does this portend the last of him? Every series must come to an end, and it is best that they do so before jumping the shark.
But there are signs that Mr. 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.
Roger K. Miller is the author of the novels "Invisible Hero" and "Dragon in Amber."