Brave thriller paints for­mer SS of­fi­cer’s life in shades of ‘Grey’

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - BOOKS -

THERE are two prin­ci­pal ways in which the thriller writer can utilise the form. One is to use all its ac­cou­trements to take the reader on a plea­sur­able ride; the other is to shake out all the clichés and tackle se­ri­ous is­sues.

Philip Kerr has taken the lat­ter course in the lat­est en­try in his Ber­lin Noir se­ries. With great au­dac­ity, Kerr junks all the usual sus­pense tech­niques in a nar­ra­tive that is less to do with a body count than with the pro­tag­o­nist’s col­lu­sion with his cor­rupt so­ci­ety. What is more, in Field Grey the reader is asked to draw his or her own con­clu­sions. It is a dar­ing (per­haps fool­hardy) move, but Kerr has shown that he is not averse to such risk-tak­ing.

His first novel, March Vi­o­lets (1989), placed a Chan­d­le­rian pri­vate eye, Bernie Gunther, into a boldly re­alised 1930s Ber­lin. Other suc­cess­ful books fol­lowed – but then Kerr de­camped to Hollywood to toil on sev­eral big-bud­get projects that did not come to fruition. Af­ter his re­turn to the UK, he set about re­gain­ing his cre­den­tials as a nov­el­ist, rather than a habitué of Tin­sel­town. Now he is fly­ing high again, his come­back con­sol­i­dated by his win­ning the 2009 El­lis Peters Award for his­tor­i­cal crime fic­tion with If the Dead Rise Not.

The new book may down­play the ten­sion of ear­lier Gunther of­fer­ings, but its as­pi­ra­tions are markedly higher. The novel deals with his hero’s mil­i­tary ser­vice in the SS. Kerr has not re­vealed this side of Gunther be­fore – per­haps be­cause it would risk alien­at­ing read­ers. In a pro­logue, set in 1950s Cuba, Bernie is ar­rested by the Amer­i­cans and sent to Ber­lin to an­swer for his “war crimes”. His ques­tion­ing at the hands of the CIA re­lates to Eric Mielke, a man whom Bernie has – on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions – tried to kill. A flash­back to 1931 in­tro­duces Mielke, while Bernie is an on­looker to bru­tal­ity com­mit­ted by Ger­man sol­diers and SS per­son­nel re­cruited from France.

There is a price to pay for re­veal­ing this part of Gunther’s ca­reer. It would be safer to dis­tance the pro­tag­o­nist from his mon­strous bosses, but Kerr in­vites us to make up our own minds about Gunther’s com­pro­mised ac­tions. Bernie is a mem­ber of the SS and kills par­ti­sans – but we are re­minded that the par­ti­sans were killing Ger­man sol­diers. It is a brave tac­tic, but a mea­sure of Kerr’s skill that such am­bi­gu­ity makes Field Grey so chal­leng­ing a novel. – The In­de­pen­dent

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