Philip Kerr, Field Grey: A Bernie Gunther Novel. New York: G.P. Putnam’s, 2011, ISBN 978-0-399-15741-7.

I’m a total World War Two junkie and an occasional fan of harboiled detective stories, so when I was in the local library last week and discovered a book combining the two, I couldn’t resist checking it out and I wasn’t disappointed.

Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther is a World War One veteran and a Berlin homicide cop whose career spans from the fall of the Weimar Republic to the rise of the Nazis and World War Two. This novel moves back and forth from Gunther’s Berlin days to the postwar 1950s in Cuba and other locations. There’s tons of material for history fans, and enough moral ambiguity for a squad of ethicists and philosophers, particularly in the centre part which asks, can a good man serve in the middle of SS under Heydrich, Hitler’s executioner?

Gunther is a decent guy surrounded by scumbags, including German communists, Nazis, cynical French intelligence operatives and naive but brutal Americans. Gunther is no choirboy but he’s portrayed as tough, wisecracking, and essentially decent. Here’s an excerpt of a scene where he’s being interrogated by US war crimes investigators with a briefcase of hidden agendas:

“You enjoy playing Gestapo. It’s a little bit of a kick for you doing it their way, isn’t it? Secretly, you probably admire them and the way they went about extracting teeth and information.”

They came close to me now, raising their voices beyond what was comfortable to hear.

“F**k you, Gunther.”

“You hurt our feelings with that remark about the Gestapo.”

“I take it back. You’re much worse than the Gestapo. THey didn’t pretend they were defending the free world. It’s your hypocrisy that’s offensive, not your brutality. You’re the worst kind of fascists. The kind that think they’re liberals.”

One of them started knocking at my head with the knuckle on his finger; it wasn’t painful so much as annoying.

I love that last line, it’s typical of Gunther’s attitude and Kerr’s writing; both are tough and clever.

I won’t say anything about the plot, except that it was a bit labyrinthine and sometimes I had trouble following it. I’ll have to read it again, but I enjoyed it and was delighted to find that there are three more Bernie Gunther novels in Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy.

I liked this book and recommend it to history and detective fans alike.