By Philip Kerr
This novel has been nominated by The Mystery Writers of America for the prestigious Edgar Award for best mystery novel of 2011. While the book is good, I think calling this a mystery is somewhat of a stretch. Field Gray is really a political thriller in the mold of John Le Carre or Robert Ludlum. The main character is Bernie Gunther, a Berlin police detective turned private eye who joined the SS 1940 even though he never joined the National Socialist Party and didn’t consider himself a Nazi. We meet Bernie in 1954 in Cuba. He is working for the mobster Meyer Lansky and is captured by the U.S. Navy while taking a boat to Honduras.
Bernie is interrogated by the F.B.I. at Guantanamo and then by the C.I.A. at a secret facility in New York state. It is known that Gunther is a war criminal and a fugitive from justice, but the questions center around his relationship with a pre-war German communist named Erich Mielke. Gunther and Mielke both served in Hitler’s SS in Berlin and on the Western Front. By 1954 Mielke has become the commander of the East German secret police.
Gunther is transferred to Germany’s Landsberg Prison and he is held in the same cell which housed Adolf Hitler. While at Landsberg, French and American agents try to pry information from Gunther. He deftly plays one intelligence service against another. The story is told in flashback style with chapters containing the interrogations alternating with Gunther’s remembrances of his various war time experiences. These included fighting Russians on the Western Front, suffering as a Russian P.O.W. and serving as an intelligence officer in France. These discontinuous time sequences are distracting at best and more confusing than seems necessary.
Somewhere along the line a plot is hatched with the C.I.A. to deliver Mielke to the Americans in exchange for Gunther‘s freedom. The conclusion involves more double and triple crossing activities.
The plot of this book is very difficult to follow. There are no “good guys” and “bad guys” in this story (perhaps one explanation for the title), just a cadre of morally ambiguous folks looking after their own best self-interests. I didn’t find this book as entertaining as Le Carre and almost gave up on it on several occasions. I was glad that I read to the conclusion, however, because the ending almost makes the mental exercise of trying to follow the circuitous plot worth it.