Thursday, December 29, 2011

Reading Philip Kerr's "Field Gray"

Field Gray is a realistic, tightly plotted, multi-level mystery novel, firmly grounded in detail--both historical and geographical--that accomplishes the primary objective of historical fiction: it recreates the past in order to illuminate the present and warns subtly not to commit the same mistakes yet again.And, although it is modern in its approach and structure and  does demonstrate an obvious agenda, it remains true to its subject, its milieu, its characters, and its historical framework.

Kerr, through the interrogation of his protagonist, Bernie Gunther, in five different prisons in 1954 recounts two stories--the lives of Bernie Gunther, ex-Berlin detective, and Erich Mielke, the minister of state security of the German Democratic Republic from 1957 to 1989.

The story begins in Cuba in 1954, where Bernie is working for Meyer Lansky, Jewish crime lord and one of the original founders of Murder Incorporated. Castro is active and Baptista's regime is in serious trouble. After meeting Graham Greene in a local brothel, Bernie sets sail to help a friend of a friend, a young woman, who has killed a police officer, with a United States sailor's stolen weapon. So begins a series of incidences that result in Bernie's incarceration in five different prisons, where he is interrogated by various intelligence agencies and remembers his past, until he finds himself back in Berlin and in the middle of a clandestine operation being conducted by the French, Russians, and the CIA. To survive and also mete out a bit of revenge, Bernie revisits his past and plays one country's intelligence service against another.

As the adage goes, the devil is in the details, and Kerr's command of early twentieth-century history is staggering. He knows what happened when and where; and, when I say "where," I mean he knows the street address. This attention to detail provides a sense of verisimilitude that is lacking in many historical crime novels. Kerr seems to be particularly well versed in legal matters and procedure, which in this novel in particular, is used to great effect.

Kerr dominates his corner of the historical/mystery genre.

As an aside, when I was working in Berlin in 1990, his second novel The Pale Criminal appeared and I quickly snapped it up, along with its predecessor March Violets. The novels were exactly the kinds of books that I loved at the time and still do. I was infected with German measles (metaphorically) at the time; I loved all things German, especially German literature and history. And the truth of the matter, after all, was that I was in Germany because of a book. That isn't really accurate: there was more than just one book that fueled my interest in Germany; there were hundreds of them--biographies, histories, and novels. It was a state of mind, an obsession that began earlier than my immersion in literature about the war. Maybe, it had to do with the return of my grandfather, father and two uncles from the war and their attitude of steely silence about it all. Maybe it was the way they held their cigarettes or drank their beers, staring off in the distance, holding their secrets close to their T-shirts. When I try to pinpoint the moment of my obsession, I can see toy German soldiers, or a pocket book edition of Cornelius Ryan's The Last Battle, Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, or Len Deighton's brilliant series set in Berlin. Or maybe it was The Blue Angel or the Blue Max or Cabaret or the poetry of W. H. Auden or Christopher Isherwood's novels and short stories. Eventually, it would become Einstein's Berlin or Döblin's Berlin or the German Expressionists' Berlin or Hitler's. By 1990, however, it was my Berlin; and through my Berlin filter, Field Gray seems both very real, very timely and extremely readable.

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