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GREEKS BEARING GIFTS marks Bernie Gunther's thirteenth appearance since he first entered the scene in 1989 as a private detective, Great War veteran, and ex-copper, now specializing in missing persons cases in Berlin in 1938. Since then, we have observed his career exposed, but not linearly. Each new volume in the series might focus on any time between 1935 and the late fifties. Those set after the defeat of Nazi Germany tended to include large retrospective sections detailing Gunther's activity during the war and, increasingly, his behaviour always had its ambiguities.
GREEKS, however, is set firmly in 1957, and for the most part in Greece. For reasons too complicated to go into, Bernie is unable to return to his native Berlin and is hiding out in Munich, not a city he cares for, under a false name, Christof Ganz. He is keeping his head down and earning a very modest living as a mortuary attendant. It's a far cry from his heady days during the war when he was, as he says, "a useful stooge in the SD for the likes of Heydrich, Nebe, and Goebbels." But he is not complaining as it perhaps gives him a chance to "inch my way back to moral respectability."
But Bernie is not to languish long in Munich. As the result of a meticulously-plotted series of events, he soon finds himself no longer washing corpses in Munich but adjusting insurance claims in Athens. One of these involves the sinking of a boat that was supposed to be used in a search for sunken ancient artifacts, but which really might have had something to do with gold stolen from the Jews of Salonika during the Nazi occupation. Perhaps an underground Jewish group is seeking retribution when it cannot get justice. But then, the owner of the boat is murdered, both his eyes shot out, just like another Athenian, a Jewish lawyer. The execution method reminds a Greek police lieutenant of a similar event during the war. The perpetrator in that instance was known but never prosecuted as he was a leading Nazi; he is still at large. But the lieutenant leans heavily on Bernie to unravel all this, if Bernie wishes to regain his passport and avoid spending considerable time in a Greek jail.
And so it unfolds, tightly plotted, full of incident, vivid characterization, and historical fact, as we have come to expect from a Bernie Gunther tale. We have also become used to Bernie's uneasily remembering his past during the years of Nazi reign and finding much that makes him at best uncomfortable, at worst guilty. There is an extraordinary scene toward the end of the novel in which the man Gunther is trying to hand over to the Greeks who want him for war crimes tries to convince Bernie's latest love interest that Bernie is a total fraud. His attack constitutes a tidy overview of Bernie's story over most of the novels to date. In every case, Bernie had presented himself as doing the best he could to both stay alive and remain relatively uncompromised. Always he has admitted to making certain dubious moral choices, but we have been able to grant him a bit of slack; who indeed could wholly escape taint in those times except an innocent victim? Would we have acted differently? Could we? But there is a nagging grain of truth in the bill of particulars drawn up by Bernie's enemy that undermines our conviction that, all in all, Bernie is, if not admirable, at least on the side of good.
At the very end of the novel, Bernie seems to be about to set forth on yet another career that might offer him another chance at redemption, one that would provide a "place in the new moral order..., where a drifting ghost like me could feel like something real again and breathe the dream of true atonement." But the Author's Note informing us of the actual fates of some of the historical figures who appear in the novel briskly reveals that the world that has emerged from the war is itself morally ambiguous, making it difficult for the reader to believe that Bernie will find his peace.
Whether Philip Kerr knew, when he wrote these words, that he might not be able to complete Gunther's journey to salvation I cannot say. GREEKS BEARING GIFTS is the next to last in the series. Kerr delivered the manuscript of the final volume to his editor only days before he succumbed to cancer.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, March 2018
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