Thursday, March 22, 2012

Bernie Gunther Noir

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Today in Critics at Large, David Churchill reviews the latest in Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther saga which he finds disappointing. Back in 2010, however, he examined with sharp insight the enthusiasm he felt for the earlier books in the series.  

A Well Not Dry: Philip Kerr's Field Grey

If this were (and I'm not saying it is) the last book in Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther books, I would still be a very satisfied reader. It's not that Field Grey is the best of the now-seven novels, but there's a mournful, elegiac quality to this book that suggests a fascinating road perhaps leading to an end. The majority of the book is set in Germany in 1954 as Gunther tells stories to interrogators. This one begins shortly after the close of the last novel, If The Dead Rise Not (2009 – reviewed by mehere). Gunther is not-so reluctantly coerced into helping a pretty, young female Castro rebel escape from Cuba to Haiti (Gunther, in the best noir tradition, has always been a sucker for a pretty face). During the journey across the Caribbean, Bernie's boat is captured by the American Coast Guard. Through slightly contrived circumstances, Bernie is identified, arrested and imprisoned first in New York, then Germany. He is suspected of war crimes.

Gunther has always been a fascinating character. A detective before and during the Nazi years in Berlin, he is no Nazi (he despises them – well, actually, Bernie hates pretty much everybody: Americans, British, Russians/Communists and the French, particularly the French), but he is a survivalist, so he didn't always stand up to Nazis. The times he didn't step up, he would have certainly been killed if he had. Sometimes he witnessed and even participated in some pretty bad things, but his moral code of trying to do the right thing as much as possible repeatedly saved both his skin and his soul. Bernie did some of the things he is accused of (shooting unarmed partisans in Eastern Europe during the war), but only after they had slaughtered many innocents themselves.

Unlike the other six books in the series, there really isn't a murder to be solved here (except a minor killing part way through the book when Gunther is thrown into a Russian POW camp after the war). This book is about Gunther coming to terms with how he's lived his life and the things, good or bad, that he's done. Therefore the book is filled with numerous, mostly well-handled flashbacks from 1931 through to 1946, including, for the first time in the series, events that occurred during the actual war years (all the other books took place before or after the war). Finally, we are made privy to the details of the things Gunther had only alluded to in the previous novels. Kerr has always been masterful at presenting the world we are travelling through. His research has always been impeccable, and I've always come away from his novels learning things I've rarely gleaned from non-fiction books on the subject. This book is no different. Kerr is also unafraid to let us dislike (if not hate) Gunther in this book as Bernie constantly rails against most of the Allies and their people (Canada gets a free pass, so I guess he liked us, or more likely we were unimportant).

Author Philip Kerr
In this outing, which is not quite as good as If The Dead Rise Not, at least Kerr doesn't seem to be trying so hard to evoke the tough-guy noir writing that sometimes marred Rise Not.

There were two of them. They had intense, birdlike faces, five o'clock shadows that appeared just after lunch, damp shirt collars, nicotine-stained fingers and espresso breath. They were cops or something very like it. One of the men, the heavier smokier, had very white hair and very black eyebrows that looked like two lost caterpillars. The other was taller, with a whore's sulky mouth, ears like the handles on a trophy, and an insomniac's hooded, heavy eyes.

We have been very fortunate with this long series. Too often a writer returns to the well one, two, three or four times too many (Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels, for example) ruining a good thing. Perhaps because Kerr took a 15-year break in the series (A German Requiem, the last book in the so-called Berlin Noir trilogy, was released in 1991; the first book in this group of four, The One From The Other, was released in 2006) he has managed to keep it fresh. Whether he plans to write anymore I have no idea, but if he wants to finish a third trilogy (and the books can be divided like that), I'd certainly not object. Field Grey is currently only available from Britain (published by Quercus) for approximately £18, including shipping. It will be released in Canada by Penguin Books in March 2011.

- originally published on November 10, 2010 in Critics at Large.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and the author of The Empire of Death. Go to for more information.

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