Field Grey is Philip Kerr’s seventh novel about the private detective Bernie Gunther. It begins in 1954. On his way out of Cuba, Gunther is captured by the Americans. After months of incarceration in Guantanamo Bay he is transferred to Germany, where he undergoes interrogation. As US agents question Gunther about his past, the story casts back to his time as a police inspector in 1930s Berlin, and to an episode in occupied Paris, after which he is sent to Russia during the German offensive of 1941.
Gunther’s relationship with Erich Mielke, a young communist who first appears in the novel when he shoots two policemen in Berlin in 1931, serves as a guiding thread through the plot. In reality, Mielke later became head of state in the German Democratic Republic and in 1993 was convicted of the shooting which appears in the story. This is just one example of the impressive amount of historical detail Kerr includes. Because the plot is interwoven with different real historical situations, the author reveals the interrelatedness of historical events and emphasises the struggle of individuals within them.
Spy novels evolve around two opposed sides between which the spy has to navigate, often making it unclear which side the spy is actually on. Field Grey takes this to an extreme: Gunther’s actions are never governed by an allegiance to a state or ideology but by a mixture of moral belief and the desire to do his job well. But the neutrality to which Gunther aspires is impossible. His continual changing of sides shows the tragic impossibility of escaping the orbits of Washington and Moscow as an individual.
Kerr paints a powerful picture of the struggles of the 1930s, the war and divided post-war Berlin. However, the underlying historical analysis is often superficial. The nature of fascism is obscured when Nazis, communists, French collaborators and the CIA are all termed “fascists” at one point or another. Similarly, while the novel rightly points to the atrocity of French and later Russian concentration camps, it risks putting them on a level with the Nazis’ camps (which never actually figure in the plot) and therefore underplaying the unprecedented horror of the Holocaust.
Spy novels always operate on the level of the ruling class. In Field Grey this translates into a deep interest in the motivations of high-ranking Nazis. Many appear troubled by having to participate in something they detest. These Nazis are humanised while the victims of their crimes are absent.
Field Grey’s weakness, however, can also be read as a strength: labelling all powers “fascist” is flawed, but it expresses the idea that all states are governed by similar inhuman logic. The description of Guantanamo, for example, is a powerful reminder of the hypocrisy behind US rhetoric of freedom and democracy.
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