Philip Kerr crafts a thrilling chapter from his critically acclaimed Bernie Gunther series. In Field Gray, Bernie finds himself imprisoned in 1954—and told he can either work for French intelligence or he can hang. Accepting his new job, Bernie begins interviewing POWs returning from Germany. And things get interesting when he meets a French war criminal and member of the French SS who has been posing as a German Wehrmacht officer.
In his international pursuit of Erich Mielke (the real-life head of the Stasi), Bernard Gunther enters the employment of Reinhard Heydrich (the infamous Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, whose own assassination in Prague inspired a Hollywood movie directed by Fritz Land from a script by Brecht). Ostensibly a German mercenary, Gunther is in fact second cousin to the wise-cracking cynics of Raymond Chandler's world: even his name is shortened to ‘Bernie’ in recognition of his true literary nationality. His pursuit soon takes on secondary importance as the narrative morphs into a string of entertaining set-pieces framed by an increasingly fractured narrative that jumps from '41 to '54, Cold War to WWII, Berlin to Cuba to New York. This sense of dislocation ads to the ambiguity that surrounds Gunther: As he tells and retells his story to various interrogators from the CIA and the Stasi, the listener has to make up his or her own mind about the reliability of his point of view and the extent of his culpability.
It’s a brave choice by Philip Kerr to ask us to engage with a character that occupies moral ground as grey as the army uniform described in the title. He's not helped by the often uneasy mixture of the wise-cracking tone demanded by the conventions of hardboiled noir and the very real history that, at times, overwhelms the story. Cynical quips and the Holocaust don’t mix all that well. Field Gray is packed with background information, and the dialogue is at its weakest when characters speak a little too extensively about the historical background, as if Kerr is trying to cram in every last scrap of his research.
However, these flaws are redeemed in this recording by the perfect marriage between voice and character as presented by Paul Hecht. His voice (reminiscent of Philip Baker Hall) is rich in regret and his crumpled world-weariness matches Bernard Gunther's embattled defensiveness. Here is a character who constantly has to justify his compromised choices to interrogators that have been untouched by the hard choices made necessary by war, and Hecht’s delivery is just right for a defendant who has seen things that his prosecutors can hardly dream of. Even within the context of his unique voice, Hecht manages to color it with light and shade so that the supporting characters are more than just background voices. This is a voice you’ll want to listen to. Dafydd Phillips
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Way too much of a good thing... Bernie as Zelig
So far, the best in a masterful series