- - Sunday, April 15, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

GREEKS BEARING GIFTS: A BERNIE GUNTHER NOVEL

By Philip Kerr

Putnam, $27, 528 pages

Bernie Gunther, that immortal Berlin cop, is back — which is good news for all readers.

He survived Nazi Germany and World War II, not to mention dealings with Hitler’s monsters such as Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich and emerged alive from a Russian prison camp which wasn’t easy. Yet, the indefatigable Bernie is still haunted by the past and he sees ghosts wherever he goes because Nazism is far from dead.

Even in Greece, where Bernie winds up in what he hopes is a nice quiet, well-paying and respectable job with a thriving insurance company that wants to use his detecting skills. In any case he feels it will be an improvement over a miserable job in a hospital where his duties are connected with its mausoleum. And he has already encountered an old enemy from his days as a lawman in Berlin during the war.

It should surprise nobody that although Bernie proves efficient at his new job checking insurance claims and what is wrong with them, Greece is no solution to his past or present problems. For one thing, he is hardly there before he runs into a corpse and a Greek police lieutenant who is suspicious.

It turns out that the Greeks are suspicious of all Germans and they are especially doubtful about Bernie’s insistence that he was never a Nazi and owes his survival to a smart mouth and a capacity for doing the wrong thing at the right time.

He also discovers that his Greek lieutenant who is investigating the murder Bernie has just come up with is a man on a mission of revenge against the Nazi horror that massacred thousands of Greek Jews. He enlists Bernie’s help in finding one of the Nazi killers from those days who has now re-established himself in Greece.

Philip Kerr, who died in March, is an author known for his research into the dark days of World War II and how it was to live in a Berlin full of death. In “Greeks Bearing Gifts” he shifted his base to Greece, committed to depicting what it suffered during the war at the hand of the Germans. And he makes it clear that to the Greek mind, a German is not just a German but a Nazi and they are the unforgiven.

Although Mr. Kerr has changed the setting of his plot, he has not shifted from the basic theme of his many shrewd and grim books that focus on the past in a manner that reminds many readers of the peril of forgetting it.

Romance is scarce in this latest version of the chronicles of Bernie, although Bernie does yield to the charms of a really gorgeous Greek woman without going so far as to trust her. Fortunately, she feels the same way about him and Bernie gets a taste of his own medicine when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex, however glamorous.

What is remarkable is how Mr. Kerr steeps his stories in irony. Bernie is a man who has suffered much in a tough life and he is a tough man, hardened and cynical in the manner of Phillip Marlowe, another hard-boiled detective to whom he is often compared.

What makes this latest Bernie book notable is how it strikes a series of authentic notes. One of his characters is real, as alas, were many of the others. But in the epilogue that weaves together the cobweb of Nazis, Mr. Kerr notes that some of the killers did meet punishment at Greek hands despite the protests of the West German government.

He has used Bernie’s insurance background very effectively in describing how cases came to be built against those who fed the evil appetites of the Nazi party.

Bernie solves his murders and heads back to Berlin which will always be his home. He is still hopeful that he can find a nice quiet, respectable position, but his readers know he won’t, a fact made more poignant by Mr. Kerr’s passing.

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


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