At the start of the seventh book in the Bernie Gunther thriller series it is 1954, and Bernie trying to escape from Cuba is arrested by the US Navy. He is taken to Guantanamo, and then on to New York and Germany, where ironically he finds himself in Cell number 7 at the Landsberg Prison, once occupied by Hitler after his failed Munich Putsch in 1923.
I should warn readers that the front flap synopsis in my hardback copy bears very little resemblance to the actual plot of the book. Possibly the reason for this is that the plot is incredibly complex. I found it a little difficult to follow at times, but that said it is a brilliant novel full of moral ambiguities, difficult compromises, and thought provoking wisecracks from Bernie.
As Bernie is interrogated by his captors, the reader is taken back in various flashbacks to Berlin 1931, France 1940, Minsk 1941 [a particularly horrific part of the story concerning the Einsatzgruppen], and Russia 1945-1946 [when Bernie was a prisoner of war of the Russians].
'Be reasonable, Bernie.'
'These men-Himmler, Heydrich, Muller-they're fanatics. You can't reason with fanatics.'
Bernie is valuable because he can identify Erich Mielke, a real life character, who became Minister of State Security in the German Democratic Republic from 1957-1958, and who was wanted for the murders of two policeman in Berlin in 1931. I always find the pre-war sections of the Bernie Gunther books where Bernie is staunchly anti-Nazi an easier read than the later scenarios, and this book is no exception.
There is an almost overwhelming amount of historical facts within the pages of this book, and sometimes the information is disconcerting.
'Ordinarily, I should send him to the SS quartermaster for an off-the-peg Hugo Boss uniform, but he'll be travelling on the Fuhrer's personal train, so he'll need to look smart.'
But the title Field Grey might not only refer to the uniform Bernie wears but also the shades of grey, and levels of innocence and guilt of the participants.
Hitler, Stalin, Heydrich, Nazis, Germans, Russians, Byelorussians, SS, Gestapo, NKVD, MVD, Stasi, CIA, SDEC [French counter espionage service], French SS, and Vichy all come out of this story with varying amount of blood on their hands.
Reading about all this evil is very unpleasant, but I wonder if our present day politicians could learn something from reading about the past and perhaps avoid the mistakes that they seem to be repeating today.
From the author's notes: Of these [the twenty-four Einsatzgruppen defendants] thirteen were sentenced to death with four hanged on 7 June 1951. Of the remaining twenty all had been released or paroled by 1958. A fact I continue to find incredible.
There are crime fiction series where the author runs out of ideas, but if there is a fault in this superb account of Europe in turmoil it is that in Bernie Gunther's seventh outing there are just too many ideas, too much double dealing and too many historical facts to be fully absorbed in one reading.
Field Grey may not be an easy read, but it is another fine addition to a series that is both educational and thought provoking.
'I don't like criminals who break the law,' I said.
'What other kind are there?'
'The kind that make the law. It's the Hindenburgs and Schleichers of this world who are doing more to screw the Republic than the commies and the Nazis put together.'
The Bernie Gunther series with links to my reviews.
A German Requiem
The One from the Other