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Book Review: Field Gray by Philip Kerr

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Field Gray by Philip Kerr is a novel tak­ing place alter­na­tively between the 1931 and mid 1954, mostly in Berlin. The book is seventh novel star­ring Bernie Gun­ther.

The past of Bernie Gun­ther catches up with in 1954 Cuba while doing work for mob­ster boss Meyer Lan­sky. Even though this anti-Nazi PI sur­vived the Nazi régime and a soviet POW camp it seems his his­tory won’t leave him alone.

Land­ing in the US prison of Guan­tá­namo and later in New York City, Bernie is inte­grated by the FBI about his role as a mem­ber of an SS police bat­tal­ion in WWII. Trans­ferred to Lands­berg Prison in Ger­man Bernie is being ques­tioned and tor­tured by sev­eral gov­ern­ments. String­ing them along, Bernie expe­ri­ences flash­backs which bring back his war expe­ri­ences, none of which are good.

I seem to have no luck with series of books I like. I usu­ally find them after sev­eral books have been pub­lished and feel com­pelled to play catch up. Field Gray by Philip Kerr is no excep­tion on this front.

The novel fol­lows Bernie Gun­ther who has to be one of the most anti­heroic anti­heroes ever writ­ten. Join­ing Gun­ther are a bunch of off­beat char­ac­ters, none of which, it seems, have any redeem­ing qual­i­ties. Maybe that’s what the “gray” in the title refers to (besides the Ger­man army’s uni­forms made by Hugo Boss) as there are no good or bad guys in this book; they are all shades of gray.

Mr. Kerr writes with a sar­donic, twisted and dark sense humor. This is just the kind of humor which my beloved wife finds adorable…wait, sorry, she can’t stand it – some­times I get con­fused between the two.

The plot kept me going round and round with its twists, as well as thought pro­vok­ing sub­jects. I had no idea what would hap­pen until the last few pages. The writ­ing is crisp, atmos­pheric and noir. Mr. Kerr pulls no punches; he looks at his­tory in the eye, sees all the ugli­ness which most peo­ple would rather for­get and instead writes about it.

Bernie Gun­ther is an unusual cre­ation; he is cyn­i­cal, tired, tough on him­self and done many things none of us would be proud to do. He is an insane man liv­ing in an insane world (does that make him sane?) where the only way to sur­vive is to look­out for one self and that means screw­ing over every­one else (who, by the way, are try­ing to screw you over). I lose my mind when the cable com­pany charges me a do-nothing-because-we-can fee, but Bernie lives every­day know­ing that at any point in time some­one can swoop in and destroy every­thing he built in an instant.

One of the things which the book, through my inter­pre­ta­tion at least, touches is how ordi­nary peo­ple could jus­tify par­tic­i­pat­ing in atroc­i­ties.
Think about it.

There weren’t only Nazis in Auschwitz, there were sec­re­taries, cooks, and other admin­is­tra­tive no-bodies. They bore wit­ness to one of the biggest, if not the biggest, crimes in his­tory yet we have pic­tures of them enjoy­ing a coun­try side pic­nic.

Inad­ver­tently or not, we get a glimpse into that kind of men­tal­ity with Bernie Gun­ther. He was forced into the SS and com­mit­ted his own atroc­i­ties; in his head they are jus­ti­fied.

We only get to read his side of it.

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