Field Grey, by Philip Kerr, Quercus £17.99, 480 pages
Berlin Noir is a genre whose stock continues to rise. The dark drama of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, recently published in English to rave reviews, has joined a burgeoning body of literature that uses the German capital as a backdrop, featuring works by authors from John le Carré to David Downing. Only New York, it seems, holds more appeal for the crime novelist than Berlin.
Philip Kerr has contributed more than most to the field. His “Bernie Gunther” novels – the first of which, March Violets, appeared in 1989 – detail the life and woes of his Berlin detective, and have set the standard for others to meet. For his latest outing, Kerr has again widened his hero’s horizons, and though Berlin provides the focus, the action ranges between Batista’s Cuba, wartime France and the Gulags of the post-war Soviet Union.
Gunther himself is readily recognisable, however. Cold, hard-bitten and as contemptuous of the Nazis as he is of the Communists, the Americans and the French, he is nobody’s man and is motivated more by his own innate sense of morality and justice than by any political principle or loyalty. A tough but surprisingly likeable and sympathetic character – in many ways an echter Berliner – Gunther carries the narrative well.
And it’s quite a narrative. Opening in 1950s Cuba, Gunther finds himself in the clutches of the CIA, then the French intelligence service, before flirting with the Stasi. His story unfolds through a series of extended flashbacks, invoked via interviews and interrogations with each set of captors, before the two strands of the tale finally converge in the last few chapters.
Kerr is a master of evoking the spirit of the age, especially when describing the dark, turbulent days of Weimar Berlin. He has clearly done his homework and brings an admirable whiff of authenticity to proceedings, providing historical characters and real events to punctuate his story. Kripo chief Arthur Nebe and head of the Stasi Erich Mielke feature strongly, for instance, and the narrative is skilfully woven into the genuine events of the period, from the political violence of inter-war Berlin to the awful nemesis of German POWs in the post-war Soviet Union. Only occasionally does Kerr allow the reader to get a glimpse behind the curtain; most obviously by cramming more information and background into dialogue exchanges than reality would permit.
There are other caveats. Gunther does not seem to travel well, and though the sections set in France or the Soviet Union work well enough, the Cuban episode is less convincing, with the protagonist appearing at times as a clichéd shadow of Philip Marlowe, all cynicism, bile and world-weariness. “My luck ran out on me a long time ago,” he quips lamely at one point; “It was going so fast it must have been wearing running shoes.”
More seriously, Kerr’s plot is convoluted, consisting of a web of crosses, double-crosses and triple-crosses, which leave the reader more bewildered than enthused. Even those accustomed to the twists and turns of the criminal thriller will find their mental agility challenged.
The book’s structure is similarly idiosyncratic, with flashbacks and fast-forwards giving a very episodic feel which not only provides little clarity, but also serves to prevent the development of any real narrative head of steam. Indeed, when – late in the story – Gunther asks yet another set of interrogators if they want “the whole novel, with a beginning, a middle and an end”, the reader’s heart almost sinks.
Aficionados of Kerr’s novels will doubtless find plenty to admire in Field Grey. But it is hard not to conclude that this offering lacks something of the polish, the panache and the imagination of previous titles.
Roger Moorhouse is the author of ‘Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital’ (Bodley Head)