One of the many things to admire about Philip Kerr’s long-running Bernie Gunther series is the way the novels seamlessly blend the complex antihero’s personal history with that of Germany before, during and after World War II. From the first novel, “March Violets,” which finds Bernie as a private investigator in 1936, to last year’s “If the Dead Rise Not,” in which he’s living in 1954 Cuba and working for gangster Meyer Lansky, the series has always given compelling point-in-time glimpses of Bernie’s motley career.
Bernie has been a detective in Kripo (Berlin’s criminal police force), a house dick at the famous Hotel Adlon, an officer in the German SS and more. With such a broad canvas, Kerr has used the crimes Bernie investigates — and sometimes commits — as a window to explore the much larger crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Nazis, Russian communists and others during the war.
In “Field Gray,” it’s the United States’ turn in the box. Living under an assumed name in Cuba, Bernie encounters Uncle Sam when he’s captured sailing to Haiti with a beautiful Cuban fugitive wanted for murder. Bernie too is on the run from Cuban military intelligence officers who want him to spy on his crime boss. So when he is captured by the U.S. Navy and held prisoner at Gitmo, Bernie hopes all they want is information on Lansky too, even after Bernie’s transferred to Castle Williams, a military prison on Governor’s Island, N.Y.
But as Bernie reflects on his life, he knows they could want him for much more than working for a gangster: “He’d had a pretty tough war one way or the other, and done quite a few things of which he wasn’t proud…it had been no picnic for him since then either; it didn’t seem to matter where he spread life’s tartan rug, there was always a turd on the grass.”
Bernie’s FBI interrogators vacillate between revulsion and hatred for their “Nazi murderer” prisoner, and their casual brutality makes Bernie realize how different they aren’t from some of his SS colleagues. But before they can injure him further, he’s whisked away to Landsberg prison in Germany, where several Nazi war criminals are imprisoned awaiting war tribunals. Here Bernie is questioned by two unidentified men who want him to recount all of his pre-war and wartime experiences, complete with names and details of his encounters with notorious Nazi war criminals like SS high officers Arthur Nebe and Reinhard Heydrich. Bernie’s walk down memory lane — including his donning the field gray uniform of the SS — fills in more blanks for longtime fans of the series, but it also may bewilder new readers of Kerr, whose expert research is evident on every page.
Any lingering confusion, however, gets dispelled when the true purpose of Bernie’s incarceration is revealed — he soon finds himself on the trail of someone he’s been hunting off and on for more than 20 years. The twists and turns the story takes are unexpected and suspenseful; along the way, Kerr illuminates Bernie’s idiosyncratic moral code and invites the reader to compare it to the murkier values of the Americans, the French and others who jockeyed for position during and after the world war in a partitioned but not-yet-walled Berlin.
The Bernie Gunther who evolves through the double-crosses and derring-do of “Field Gray” is heroic and deeply conflicted. A wily if unreliable narrator, Bernie may be forgiven for holding his cards so close to his chest as he tries to do the right thing in so many wrong places. Shades of the moral ambiguity of some of Graham Greene’s or John le Carré's more memorable characters are here, as is the spirit of Raymond Chandler’s knight-errant, Philip Marlowe, symbolized by a chess piece Bernie carries throughout his walk on the dark side.
Kerr’s ability to blend the elements of mystery and spy thriller into one satisfying package makes “Field Gray” the best in a long line of great entries in the series, one that should lift its author to new levels of popular and critical acclaim even as it ushers its flawed knight-errant into the Cold War.
Woods is the author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series.