- The Washington Times - Friday, June 3, 2011

FIELD GRAY
By Philip Kerr
Putman, $26.95 448 pages

Bernie Gunther is always being beaten up. By the Germans, by the French, by the Russians and by the Americans.

Even for a cop from Berlin before and during World War II, his record as a human punching bag warrants the philosophy he expresses in the early pages of this bleak thriller: “You’re born alone and you die alone and the rest of the time, you’re on your own.”

Gunther admits he has considered suicide, reflecting that most prisoners did it with a shirt after being deprived of belts and shoelaces. Although he decides against killing himself, despite his plight, he also acknowledges, “I didn’t like Bernard Gunther very much. He was cynical and world weary and hardly had a good word to say about anyone, least of all himself.”

This is Berlin noir, the favorite stalking ground of Philip Kerr, whose Nazi gangsters in the ruins of Adolf Hitler’s reich bear an odd resemblance to their hard-boiled American counterparts in the Mafia.

Mr. Kerr always walks on the dark side in his books about life as it was a half-century ago, in the world Hitler created, which was destroyed only after a war that damaged half the world. This is grimmer than usual because of its focus on the atrocities of World War II and the sufferings of Gunther. Almost nobody emerges from the darkness looking like a decent human being in this saga of violence, and Gunther, a police inspector in Berlin who has survived by becoming a member of the Nazi SS during the war, is a sad example of what survival can cost.

There isn’t much Gunther won’t do, and as he struggles to convince his captors that he was not guilty of genocide in the war, he makes clear that there are few people he likes. Moreover, the people he apparently likes least are Americans.

One of the characteristics he dislikes is “the unquestioning assumption of all Americans that they had right on their side even when they were doing wrong. … I did not care to be grateful for whatever it was the Americans were supposed to have done for us when it was abundantly clear … that really they had done it for themselves.”

Yet this is also the man who rejects an offer from a former German officer of a deal to escape from a communist labor camp by stating his own kind of philosophy. “I was the kind of cop who was too dumb to act smart and look the other way - the Nazis were cleverer than you. They knew that even in a police state there are times when you need a real policeman.”

That performance condemns him to a stint in a lethal pit in the labor camp from which uranium ore is extracted and where Gunther’s chances of survival are minimal. Gunther repeatedly rejects offers that might have relieved his misery at least temporarily without demolishing his principles, but it is his style to crack wise and cynical at everyone, especially those with the power to make him suffer.

At times he sounds gratuitously obnoxious. Even worse he sounds preachy, especially to Americans, although he does encounter some Americans whom nobody could tolerate. “You enjoy playing Gestapo,” he tells his American captors. “It’s a little bit of a kick for you doing it their way, isn’t it?”

Gunther’s constant prodding of Americans produces a predictable reaction. And it has to be remembered that as a German who says he was never a Nazi, although he wore the gray SS uniform during the war and even worked for the sadistic Reinhard Heydrich, Gunther appeared to be the kind of German most people loved to hate in the postwar years.

His capacity to infuriate is such that at one point he ends up being interrogated by the CIA in a cell that had been occupied by Hitler in his pre-power days. There, Gunther has imaginary conversations with Hitler in between sessions with American intelligence who are recording all his horror stories about powerful Nazis.

It is one of those, Erich Mielke, whom the Americans are most interested in capturing. Because Mielke and Gunther saved each other’s lives at critical moments, the intelligence operatives are justifiably convinced that Gunther can help locate him. The book details the hunt for Mielke and embellishes it with a wealth of historical detail about the course of the war.

Mr. Kerr has conducted thorough research of that era to the point that Gunther becomes almost a postscript this time. In previous books, Gunther has been more dominant in his role of the hard-bitten cop in Berlin who is a witness to a Germany sinking into the abyss of Nazism. Yet in those days, he was battling an emerging enemy, and it says something of his psychological armor that he survives the war by playing a Nazi.

It is unfortunate that it destroys some of the dark humor in his personality that made him a likable tough guy. In this book, Gunther’s unpleasant posturing is one reason why he gets beaten up so often. He displays onlya brief weakness for women and it is swallowed up in the mire of his wartime existence.

The book thus becomes more historical fiction than thriller. Mr. Kerr’s plot hinges on Gunther’s memory and recollection of brutality as information is gathered on Hitler’s assortment of monsters. How seriously the author takes his work in this case may be measured by his closing comment in which he notes the physical existence of Erich Mielke, as “one of the most hated and hateful men in East Germany.”

Mielke, according to Mr. Kerr, became a communist and a power in the Soviet intelligence structure and was an object of ridicule because of his announcements that “I love … I love … all people.”

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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