Gentle. Humble. Dignified. None of these words has ever described Bernie Gunther, the cynical Berlin cop around whom Philip Kerr fashioned his remarkable crime series set mainly in Nazi-era Germany. Gunther has, after all, survived two world wars and over the course of a dozen novels worked for the likes of Reinhard Heydrich and Joseph Goebbels. Though the moral conscience of Kerr’s series, he could never be mistaken for a saint. Yet in Greeks Bearing Gifts the ex-detective seems irrevocably altered. Even the villains can see it. “Really, Bernie, you amaze me,” one of them confesses, “Not just a romantic but an idealist too.” And Gunther himself admits that, “nothing is more compelling to a man nearing the end of his useful days than the sudden realization that he has the chance to do one good thing.” This sentiment, in harmony with the novel’s elegiac tone, seems to have particular resonance given Philip Kerr’s recent death in England at the age of sixty-two. How could it not? For Kerr is a writer who seems to inhabit the world he created (the author’s note at the end of each Bernie Gunther novel reveals the depth of his research) and to shadow his protagonist like a familiar.
Kerr keeps his readers close too, affording us a view of monstrosity that is above all intimate. Gunther, now working in a mortuary, contemplates a recent corpse. “From the look of it his face was shredded by flying glass,” he explains, “so it bears no more relation to the photograph in his passport than a plate of red cabbage would. Which is why there’s a towel covering his head.” Moments later he adds, “That’s what a bomb does… They can erect all the monuments and statues they want. But it’s sights like this poor fellow that are the real memorials to the futility and waste of war.” This being Munich in 1957, the bomb, accidentally detonated, is old. Which is how Gunther feels. From his dingy room, he looks out on “an eighty-foot-high heap of overgrown rubble, another legacy of wartime bombing” and admits, “I like the rubble heap. It served to remind me of what, until recently, my life had amounted to.”
But life is not finished with Gunther. Another adventure lies ahead, of course, one that transforms him into an insurance investigator and conveys him to Greece where a labyrinthine plot takes a few twists too many as its snakes its way around a sunken ship, plundered Jewish gold, Nazi war criminals, Israeli agents and plain old corrupt politicians. As always, historical facts underpin the novel and many of its characters are historical figures. Two of the vilest are Max Mertens, eventually convicted of war crimes against the Jews of Salonika but released after just eight months and Alois Brunner, an SS killer who evaded arrest and assassination into old age. Studying a photograph of the latter psychopath, Gunther notes that “The man in the grainy picture didn’t look like a mass murderer, but then nobody ever does…They’re not monsters and they’re not diabolical, they’re just the people who live next door and say hello on the stairs.”
Sure enough, when Brunner, alias Georg Fisher, materializes on an adjacent bar stool in an Athens hotel, “wearing a Shetland sport jacket and whipcord trousers,” he is polite and generous with his cigarettes, his business now being tobacco exporting. Of course it is. Never mind a recent murder, that missing gold or those vanished people. The war is twelve years ended and Gunther predicts that in the nascent European Economic Community, “Bureaucracy and trade were to be my country’s new method of conquering Europe.” Perhaps, but Kerr wisely anchors his plot to the past, the weight of which adds tension to a narrative that might otherwise flounder. Even then, Greeks Bearing Gifts often lacks the cohesive energy that galvanized the Berlin Noir Trilogy – March Violets, The Pale Criminal, A German Requiem – and later Gunther novels such as Prague Fatale and A Man Without Breath.
Gunther still has his moments: “I’d been alone for so long that I’d started talking to the radio,” he confesses, “At least I assumed that’s where the voices were coming from. In the country that produced Luther, Nietzsche, and Adolf Hitler, you can never be absolutely sure about these things.” Later he notices how a thug whose face he has just smashed “dabbed his nose and inspected the towel for another red mark, like a woman checking her lipstick” and admires a Greek hillside, remarking that “if it hadn’t been for the little gun in her hand I’d have said it was an excellent place for a picnic.” No wonder he is regarded as Berlin’s answer to Philip Marlowe; the ghost of Raymond Chandler is indeed omnipresent. But Kerr, at his best, has as much in common with Hans Fallada and Hans Keilson, German writers of the 1930s and 1940s whose vision is similarly, cursedly clear, especially when surveying the abyss. “If I’d had a gun I’d probably have shot him or maybe myself,” Gunther thinks when he runs up against a despicable cop, “I used to be afraid of dying but now, on the whole, I find I’m looking forward to it, to getting far away from Bernie Gunther and everything to do with him, from his tangled history and uneasy way of thinking.” Kerr’s readers, for consolation, may instead consider a return to the beginning where we can get to know this flawed hero all over again.