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Field Gray by Philip Kerr

Published by Putnam on April 14, 2011

Field Gray begins in 1954 when Bernie Gunther is persuaded to smuggle a woman out of Cuba. Once they are at sea, Gunther's boat is stopped by an American naval vessel and Gunther is taken into custody. After brief stays (accompanied by beatings) in Gitmo and a military prison in New York, Gunther is rendered to Germany where Americans interrogate him about war crimes. As Gunther begins to reveal his past, the novel shifts in time; ensuing chapters alternate between 1954 and earlier times in Gunther's life: the 1930's and 1940's in Germany and France and Russia. As a captain in the SS, Gunther commanded a firing squad that executed Russian POWs; in occupied Paris he was nearly murdered; as a POW in a camp near Stalingrad he conducted a murder investigation. These and many other snippets of Gunther's checkered life are linked (more or less) by Gunther's on-and-off involvement with Erich Mielke, who (in the real world) served for many years as the minister of state security in the German Democratic Republic.

In some respects, Field Gray reads like the autobiography of Bernie Gunther. Unfortunately, the novel shifts ground so often, and Gunther seems so detached from the story he tells, that the novel fails to create an emotional resonance between the reader and its subject. What makes Field Gray worth reading is Philip Kerr's creation, in Gunther, of a morally complex man, one who is neither entirely good nor primarily bad, who tries to survive in an evil environment without becoming wholly corrupted by it. At one point Gunther is described as "a victim of history," an apt label that gives him an interesting perspective upon the era that is the novel's focus. That perspective is most often one of anger, broadly directed at Americans, Russians, the French, and other Germans, although he's more forgiving of the British (perhaps because Kerr is British).

The story's pace is a bit uneven; unfortunate since Kerr doesn't have the kind of absorbing prose style that rivets a reader's interest when the plot begins to lag. Kerr's writing style is nonetheless capable; I never considered abandoning the story despite its occasional dull moments. Staying with it paid off in the form of an unexpected ending. While I liked the choices made in the last few pages, I suspect some will not, particularly readers who want the good guys to triumph; there are no "good guys" in this novel. But the ending is true to the story that precedes it, and I thought it was both clever and satisfying. Readers who stay with Field Gray and who aren't turned off by moral ambiguity should have a rewarding reading experience.


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