Having not read a thriller for a while, I was pleasantly surprised by Philip Kerr’s 2010 cold war tale, Field Grey. The latest in the Bernie Gunther series, the novel’s meandering narrative sees Bernie dragged back to Germany as a pawn in a CIA plot to capture a leading Stasi agent, Erich Mielke.
The slow-burning plot, casting a cynical eye over Americans, Russians, Frenchmen and Germans alike, is perhaps not the novel’s strength. Told largely in flashback as Bernie recounts his story to various captors, the first 450 pages cover a lot of ground without ever catching fire.
It is thus fortunate that the first-person persona Kerr creates in Gunther is so wonderful. Bernie Gunther veers from a tortured soul to a hyper-self-conscious James Bond, and ensures that even the most pedestrian passages of plot flow smoothly. The only thing Bernie loves more than beautiful women is a one-liner, and obviously both simultaneously is ideal: “You aren’t looking for a policeman. You’re looking for a man who’s eager to please and looking for advancement in the communist party... The last time I was looking for advancement in a party a pretty girl slapped my face.”
As the story finally speeds up though, Kerr ditches the shameless comedy and faces up to some tough moral questions – how far does a non-Nazi German owe allegiance to his compatriots; what do you do when you have a chance to save someone you hate? Obviously the conundrums themselves are as old as time, but Bernie’s ambiguous historical position gives them a refreshing slant – it is disconcertingly exciting when the only reference to Brits in the novel is to note they are as arrogant as Americans, but without the money to make it acceptable; it is unnerving to consider the concentration camps of even pre-Nazi France.
The novel is also unafraid of engaging, however shallowly, with some literary questions – Bernie is very aware he is a storyteller, telling subtly different versions of his tale depending on who is listening. There might be space, as the novel progresses, for this theme to be developed – how do we know we can trust that we are receiving the full truth, when Bernie is so cagey with everyone else? Perhaps wisely, given his genre, Kerr avoids pushing such questions too far.
On the whole, though, this is a great read – the 563 pages fly by, and give way to an author’s note which forces the reader to confront the historical reality of what is described. Maybe the same narrative voice could be even more potent with a more gripping narrative, but as the final plot twists play out you’ll certainly be looking for more.