Kerr, Philip - 'Field Grey'
FIELD GREY is the seventh in this series of historical thrillers featuring former Berlin "bull" (police detective) and private investigator Bernie Gunther. At the opening of FIELD GREY in 1954 Bernie is living well in Cuba under an assumed name. But Bernie has to leave Cuba; a local secret policeman has uncovered his true identity (following events earlier in the series, Bernie left Europe under the cloud of a spurious murder charge). When Bernie attempts to escape Cuba by boat, he falls into the hands of the US army and is taken to Guantanamo Bay.
At Guantanamo the CIA become very interested in Bernie's wartime activities, and in particular his pre-war acquaintance with Erich Mielke, the infamous real-life head of the Stasi (the former East Germany's security police). As Bernie is forced to give evidence to his American captors, the story of his wartime service under Heydrich emerges - in the field grey uniform of an SS field officer, Bernie was sent first to Paris, to hunt for Mielke in the diabolical conditions of the French concentration camps at Gurs and Le Vernet, and then onto Minsk in the Ukraine, the scene of wartime atrocities carried out by the SS Einsatzgruppen. Events in France, the Ukraine, and then as a POW in Russia (he was taken prisoner after the Battle of Konigsburg) come back to haunt Bernie in this book, and not only as he recounts them to his captors; Bernie is a convenient scapegoat for accusations by fellow SS officers keen to sanitise their own wartime behaviour. Under pressure from US and French intelligence, Bernie then ends up unwillingly working for French intelligence (his only alternative was to face a murder trial), where his path once again crosses with Mielke.
In terms of characterisation Philip Kerr has more difficult territory to deal with than in previous novels in this series. Kerr has to consider Bernie's service in the SS, and how far Bernie can maintain his own morality independent of ideology, when forced to use his police skills by Heydrich. Bernie's conduct shows that he continues to be his usual fundamentally decent yet awkward, wise-cracking, independent-minded self in this novel despite being a pawn of history, torn between the rival ideologies in pre- and post-war Europe. Bernie's uncompromising nature and quest for truth means he is as likely to be in peril from his colleagues as from his enemies, in war and in captivity. Bernie remains very sceptical of, and at times foolishly unafraid to challenge, adversaries of all political creeds and backgrounds. Certain fairly obvious parallels can be drawn between Bernie's detention by the US forces at Guantanamo, and conditions of detention and interrogation of more recent US detainees.
Through Bernie's eyes, Kerr takes a close look at the issue of compromises made by the Americans and the former West Germany as the Cold War loomed. Kerr captures well the moral ambiguities of the mid-fifties when the emphasis of US and German governments changed from catching and punishing Nazi war criminals to protecting themselves against the communist threat, by fair means or by foul, as seen by the release of many convicted war criminals from Landsberg in the 1950s. For example, as Kerr notes in the end of his book, except for the four Einsatzgruppen defendants executed in 1951, the other 20 convicted murderers and war criminals were all released or paroled by 1958.
FIELD GREY is a complex, thoughtful, historical thriller, deftly juggling three time frames, and maintaining a fast, exciting pace, with intriguing characters whilst providing an amazing amount of historical information. This is an outstanding addition to a very impressive series.
Laura Root, England