Cross the tough black and white noir imagery of Dashiel Hammett with the moral ambiguity of John Le Carre’s gray world of duplicity and you may get an idea of the corrupt delusional and desolate landscape that is the beat of Bernie Günter—ex-Berlin police detective, ex-PI, ex-SS security officer, survivor of two years in a Russian POW camp and most recently, in 1954, an enforcer for the mob in Batista’s Cuba.
Field Gray begins with Bernie trying to do the right thing--much against his better judgment--by smuggling a young female revolutionary out of Cuba to the Dominican Republic. Bad idea. He is popped by US Navy ops out of Gitmo, grilled, sent to NYC, grilled again and put on a plane to the US sector of Berlin, where he is to await a possible trial as a Nazi war criminal.
While at the prison that housed Adolf Hitler, after his failed Munich putsch, he is interrogated by CIA ops, tortured, grilled yet again and made to give information regarding a nefarious German communist with whom he had dealings while a detective in the Berlin police in pre-Nazi Germany and who is now a major player in East Germany’s secret police, the “Stasti”.
To survive, Bernie makes yet another “Devil’s Deal,” a deal he has made many times before with Nazi, Russian and allied, so called, intelligence services. Like The Continental Op in Hammett’s Red Harvest, Günter will play all sides against the middle and let the momentum of their ideological perception limitations give him the opportunity to slip the noose. These Ivy League boys from the CIA are out of their league when it comes to dealing with Bernie–he’s been worked over by the worst—Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich and a whole assortment of NKVD thugs.
Bernie is not a good man but he is not delusional as are the CIA, NKVD and French ops that wish to blackmail and use him for their own ends. As one of John Le Carre’s characters observes in the novel, A Perfect Spy, the only difference between the criminal and the spy is that the spy puts his larcenous nature at the service of the state. Bernie, a cop at heart, does not have a larcenous nature. He also knows Berlin better than his keepers—the worse for them. Bernie does not have the luxury of warming himself over the fire of self-righteousness and will make the men who have tortured and use him pay. At the bottom line he is a gumshoe cop getting justice anyway he can.
Philip Kerr has a talent for putting fictional characters into real historical situations and then have then interact with historical personages of the times. Bernie Gunther may be a fictional character but he very well might have co-existed with the real people he comes in contact with.
If you like Dashiel Hammett and John LeCarre, you will love Field Gray and the other Bernie Günter novels of Philip Kerr.