Monday, 11 June 2018

Seeking Redemption in Philip Kerr's Greeks Bearing Gifts

The late Philip Kerr, author of the Bernie Gunther series, including Greeks Bearing Gifts. (Photo: Phil Wilkinson)

"We live in a new era of international amnesia. Who we were and what we did? None of that matters now that we're on the side of truth, justice, and the American way of life." 
 Philip Kerr, Greeks Bearing Gifts
The sardonic voice above is that of Bernie Gunther, the protagonist of Greeks Bearing Gifts (Putnam/Wood, 2018) the thirteenth entry of the wisecracking one-time Berlin detective and later private investigator by the late Philip Kerr, who recently died of cancer at the age of sixty-two. Kerr first introduced us to the cynical Gunther in his Berlin Noir trilogy: March Violets (1989),The Pale Criminal (1990) and A German Requiem (1991), set respectively in 1936, 1938 (just before Kristallnacht) and 1947, in which he first explored the legacy of Nazism. From the beginning, Kerr was strongly influenced by the American hard-boiled novelists, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. His razor-sharp dialogue, astringent character profiles and first-person narratives have been distinctive trademarks of the series.

Kerr turned to other fiction for fifteen years before returning with The One from the Other (2006), in which Gunther poses as a Nazi war criminal as he pursues former powerful Nazis to South America. In Field Gray (2010), Gunther is commandeered to join the SD, the intelligence arm of the SS, and serve on the Eastern Front, where he is horrified by the war's atrocities and captured by the Soviets and, as a POW, toils in an uranium mine where most of the captives do not survive. Yet Gunther prevails, returns to Berlin, and is dragooned into solving a crime for the ideological zealot Reinhard Heydrich, who holds a particular fascination for Kerr: this talented and exceedingly ruthless Nazi potentate first appeared in Pale Criminal, later re-surfacing in Prague Fatale (2011) and last year's Prussian Blue. In the latter novel, Gunther repressed his scruples to also serve the loathsome Mafia-like strongman, Martin Bormann.

Gunther – the former Social Democrat, vehement opponent of anti-Semitism, and world-weary survivor – has attempted to hold on to some semblance of his own humanity in the face of the satanic evil he faces throughout. One critic describes him as "the good cop in the Nazi beast." Besides writing engaging crime novels set both in the 1930s and in the 1940s in the Nazi German Empire, and beyond in Peron's Argentina, Batista's Cuba, southern France, and Greece, the existential questions of how to salvage a moral compass amid totalitarianism and total war, and to what extent his protagonist copes with survival's guilt, are perhaps what most engages the Edinburgh-born Kerr in Greeks Bearing Gifts.

The novel opens in 1957 Munich, where Gunther earlier attempted to operate a hotel after the war with his now-deceased wife in the town of Dachau, site of the infamous former concentration camp. Gunther is avoiding his hometown Berlin, both in the West, where too many Nazis have secreted themselves into Konrad Adenauer's government, and in the East, where readers of Kerr's previous novel Prussian Blue will recall that the Stasi target Gunther for a lethal assault. Furthermore, he realizes that, given his checkered wartime experience, he could be in the cross-hairs of Nazi hunters, a well-founded fear given that an exacting Israeli agent appears later in the novel and holds his life in the balance until she is assured that he is telling the truth. 

Even though several characters are able to decode his real identity, Gunther adopts a new persona as a protective measure by growing a beard, assuming a new name, Christof Ganz, and creating a backstory as an inconsequential German with no connection to the police and the depredations of the Third Reich. Most of his fellow countrymen in the Federal Republic of Germany are enamoured of Adenauer's "economic miracle" and seem untroubled by their recent history, a mindset actively encouraged by the "Old Man," the German sobriquet for Adenauer, who brought in an amnesty law for war criminals. By contrast, Gunther is haunted by his past; he sees ghosts wherever he goes because Nazism is far from dead. Given his state of mind and the current political climate of both Germanys, Gunter is content to work on a quiet job as a mortuary assistant in a local hospital.

Gunther's solitary life is rudely interrupted one day when a corrupt Munich detective recognizes and blackmails him into a scheme that leaves two people murdered. Regarded as a suspect, Gunther remembers a lawyer who now practices in Munich, a Dr. Max Merten (whom, we learn from Kerr's excellent notes, was a real-life S.S. officer responsible for overseeing the collection of gold, jewelry, and other valuables from the large Greek Jewish community in Salonica). Merten tells him that he has connections to one of Germany’s largest insurance companies, Munich RE, an old firm that did business with the Nazis during the war (a fact that is again historically authenticated by the author). Knowing Gunther's background as a skillful investigator, Merten persuades Munich RE to employ Gunther as a claims adjuster. 

After he expedites his first two assignments to the satisfaction of his superiors – by saving them money – his new employers dispatch him to Athens to investigate a seemingly routine claim for a German vessel sunk in Greek waters off the Peloponnese coast. This is where Greeks really kicks into action. 

Gunther is met on arrival by Achilles Garlopis, a junior Munich RE employee, who, despite his illustrious name, is a self-confessed coward, albeit endearing – a quality rarely found in a character in this series – because of his innate decency and his penchant for referencing Greek mythology at any given moment. Gunther suspects that the foundering of the Doris is anything but a typical case and of course he is right. The investigation leads to a murder scene – a horrific killing that has the signature attribute of a notorious war criminal. At this juncture, Gunther encounters an experienced but suspicious Greek police officer –suspicious because it turns out that Greeks are distrustful of all Germans since they have vivid memories of the ghastly German occupation during the war. The Greeks regard them as Nazis (a perception I initially encountered over a decade later until I reassured my hosts that I was a Canadian). Gunther also discovers that this officer has taken a personal interest in this murder because it has the earmarks of a Nazi who was involved in the massacre of thousands of Greek Jews, including a friend of his father, and may be currently residing in Greece. He confiscates Gunther's passport and will only return it when he is satisfied that "Christof Ganz," whom he identifies immediately as a former cop, will cooperate with him to investigate a series of murders.

Konrad Adenauer, German Chancellor from 1949-1963. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Gunther willingly complies, not only to retrieve his passport but also, as he says to one of the characters, because he wants to do something good – to make him feel human again. Emotionally scarred by his wartime and post-war experiences, he has rarely appeared so vulnerable. For a moment, he suspends his witty, tough-talking exterior to acknowledge that he feels shame for what he has done or failed to do. He apologies for the war crimes Germans committed during the war, surprising his interlocutor, who has only heard from Gunther's fellow Germans that they knew nothing. His critical self-examination sharply contrasts with the self-serving, amoral cynicism of other Germans in the novel who take comfort in the realpolitik and economic priorities of the "Old Man."

In 1957 the Treaty of Rome was signed – it is referenced in the novel – which was the treaty that seeded the later European community. In his notes, Kerr reveals that the Adenauer had no scruples about leveraging his country's revitalized economic power to pressure countries not to prosecute German war criminals. Kerr's final note indicates that in 2003 Konrad Adenauer was voted the greatest German of all time by viewers of a German television station.

I cannot recall a Bernie Gunther novel that references so many episodes from his previous novels. It's as if Kerr were summing up his character's life, as if he knew there would be no more novels in the series set later than 1957. Was Greeks to be the last novel? Apparently not, since the word from his publisher is that Kerr was correcting another manuscript just before he succumbed to cancer. It is, at the moment, called Metropolis, and its subject is the beginning of Gunther's career in 1920s Berlin, a fitting bookend to Greeks, and one that his readers will eagerly anticipate.


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