‘Field Grey’ by Philip Kerr

Bernie Gunther was a policeman in 1930s Berlin, and by the mid 1950s is in Cuba trying to extricate himself from the gang with which he’s become embroiled.

His wish just to be left alone is foiled just off the coast of Cuba when he is arrested by the US Navy and taken back to Germany to be interrogated by the CIA for war crimes in which he may or may not have been implicated during the time he served in the SS.

It’s a challenging read, dramatising events which took place before many of the stories of earlier novels in the Bernie Gunther series.  For a while, at the beginning of my read, it did slightly bother me that I was trying unsuccessfully to fit the stories in ‘Field Grey’ into what I remembered of the earlier novels.  But then I abandoned that worry, and simply accepted the new story I was being told.

Bernie is a great character, a disaffected policeman bound only by his own sense of right and wrong, largely focussed on self preservation.

But then in the period in which he lives, the ability to survive is at a premium, as the waves of the war ebb and flow across the continent, and when moral distinctions on both sides are sometimes hard to reconcile.

The story develops in a series of flashbacks starting in 1931, showing each occasion that Bernie’s path has crossed with that of Eric Mielke, and each time he has tried to kill him.  Over the course of his interrogation by the CIA, Bernie reveals how he was buffeted by the events of history, first when he is coerced into the SS, becomes a prisoner of war in Russia, returns to a Germany in ruins, and after his arrest by the Americans is bartered between them and the French forces in the divided Berlin.

It’s a complicated story, and not a straight forward thriller plot, as it’s not always clear where the mystery really lies.  But having said that I found the story completely gripping.  I especially enjoyed the moral ambiguity of all the parties involved.  No-one behaves well; it is only their level of cynicism and calculation which separates them.

The sudden changes of allegiance that are required as political realities hit, like the end of the Hitler/Stalin pact which left German communists in a perilous situation, or the hazy rules of engagement in Vichy France form the background to the ducking and diving required of Bernie in his efforts to get by.

The traditions of British World War 2 fiction, of the clear lines between good, everyone on our side, and bad, everyone else, are challenged in this novel.

If you’re looking for a straightforward thriller, I suggest it might not be for you; but of you’d like a read that might make you wonder, for a moment, how you might behave when everything around you is in chaos, then try it.

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4 Comments

  1. kathy

     /  July 31, 2011

    Thanks so much for this Rowena. I’ve read a number of the other ‘Bernie Gunther’ books, so am pleased to hear this is a good one. As you say, Kerr manages to portray the irregularities of wartime morality extremely well in his work so have just ordered it from the library. Of course it also gave me pause/second thoughts about my own work, but that’s a tricky road to be avoided.
    BTW do you know about the Mslexia First Novel Competition? Open to all women novelists that have completed novels , that have not yet been picked up for publication. Deadline is September 30th.

    Reply
    • Hi Kathy. I do hope you enjoy it – reviews have not been universally positive, but I found it a thought provoking read.

      Yes, they say reading should help/inform our writing, but it’s not always comfortable, is it?

      I have the Mslexia comp on my horizon, so thanks for the reminder!

      Reply
  2. I read one of the early ones and enjoyed it. There are quite a few in this sub-genre of criminal-police-in-totalitarian state, and I find them fascinating. Can’t picture how it translates to 50s Cuba though.

    Reply
    • In this one he doesn’t spend much time in Cuba, but I think I may check out the one in the series that precedes this one to see how he got there…..

      Reply

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