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When I finished reading IF THE DEAD RISE NOT, the book that precedes this in the Bernie Gunther saga, I remember thinking that it was hard to imagine how Kerr could improve on this representation of the life and times of his noir hero. I need not have worried. While FIELD GRAY is different from its predecessor, it is at least its equal.
The earlier book showed us a young Bernie, one who still imagined he could retain his principles and survive the Third Reich. FIELD GRAY shows us how wrong he was. It begins in the same country IF THE DEAD ended - Cuba, 1954. Bernie is in an upscale Cuban brothel, where he crosses paths with "Buck Dexter," a writer of westerns (aka Señor Greene) who is on his way to Haiti. They have, the madam assures Bernie, "the same eyes." This adroit triple reference to The Third Man, OUR MAN IN HAVANA, and THE COMEDIANS is a clear indication of the territory that Kerr is staking out for himself, and Bernie will have to deal as best he can with the Americans, the Germans (before and after Nazism) and the Soviets, spending time in the prisons of each of the major powers.
The Americans have first crack at Bernie, as he winds up first in Guantánamo, then in a federal facility in New York, one with a view of the harbour. Next he is deported to Germany, where his wartime career is a matter of considerable interest. As his American captors interrogate him, the narrative takes us back in time, to Minsk, 1941, to Paris and to Vichy, 1940 (another prison camp, this time as a visitor), to a Soviet POW camp, 1944, and to France again, now as a prisoner in post-war France.
While all this might sound like a Cook's tour of World War II, what it is in fact is a roadmap of what survival entails in the way of compromise, manoeuvre, and simple falsehood. Bernie tells his story, but he does not tell the whole truth of it - he is a profoundly unreliable narrator - and he tailors his exposition to suit his interrogators. He does not feel he owes his captors anything particular in the way of straightforward fact nor does he feel he owes it to us, the readers, either. But as he says along the way, the best lies contain some truth.
But what does slip out shows a Bernie who has changed considerably from the cheeky detective who did what he could to remain apart from the Third Reich. What he saw on the Eastern Front, among other horrors, has convinced Gunther that his particular moment in history has no need of heroes. All you can do is to try to stay alive. What he does to remain that way leads him ever further along a dubious path that he fears will result in his "crossing an invisible line of decency and honour" so that he becomes what he most abhors, a fascist. Kerr takes a considerable risk in detailing Gunther's career after 1940. The reader of fiction wants a hero, however flawed. The realist recognizes that had Bernie been a hero, or even largely uninvolved in the evils perpetrated by the SS (of which he was a part), by Heydrich (whom he served), or less quick to betray when betrayal meant survival, he would have been dead long since.
As Bernie sails along the Cuban coast on what will prove to be his last night of relative freedom for some time, he sees the lights shining from the US base at Guantánamo. Even before his lengthy interrogation by the CIA, he views these as beacons of a future that sickens him. They were, he thinks, "a vision of the future in which American democracy ruled the world with a Colt in one hand and a stick of chewing gum in the other." The players have changed but the play remains the same: "Because Americans and not Germans were now the master race and Uncle Sam had replaced Hitler and Stalin as the face of the new empire." During the witch hunts of the 1950s, some in Hollywood were charged with being "premature anti-Fascists." Kerr here might be accused of making Bernie a premature anti-American, but his noir hero has seen enough of the arrogance of power to be justifiably wary.
Philip Kerr is, we are told, at work on yet another installment chronicling Bernie Gunther's career. As each entry in the series has expanded the scope of the noir thriller and proved increasingly more of a challenge to the reader, I look forward to it with immense anticipation.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, May 2011
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