Are you an 80-year-old guy, like my dad? You’ll probably love Field Gray, the 7th Bernie Gunther novel in the series by Philip Kerr. It’s the final nominee for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar for Best Novel. I suppose you would classify it an “historical thriller.”
This novel opens in 1954, with the much-traveled Bernie in Havana. He’s not on the right side of the law, but nobody seems to be, including the gorgeous girl he’s been blackmailed into taking with him on a boat to Haiti. Gorgeous Melba may be, but she also murdered a man for Castro and when they’re stopped by the U.S. Navy, its off to Guantanamo Bay for the two of them.
The set-up is just an excuse to get Bernie into the hands of the Americans, who question him closely about his past as a policeman – a real cop, who solves crimes, not a fake cop who uses his badge to commit them on the behalf of Nazis – during WW2. It emerges that over the years, Bernie had twice saved the life of the man who is now a much-reviled East German security chief. The CIA would love to get their hands on Erich Mielke.
Here’s a sample of the book: It was easy to forget that we were in Germany. There was a U.S. flag in the main hall and the kitchens — which were seemingly always in action — served plain home-cooking on the understanding that home was six thousand kilometers to the west. Most of the voices we heard were american, too: loud, manly voices that told you to do something or not to do something – in English. And we did it quickly, too, or we received a prod from a nightstick or a kick up the backside. Nobody complained. Nobody would have listened, except perhaps Father Morgenweiss.
The novel is in first person, and everything we see is through Bernie’s eyes. The plot is terrifically wide-ranging and has the knotty twists of a John LeCarre spy thriller. It’s packed with action, has a love story, includes real historical figures, and addresses the key sociopolitical issues of its time, while at the same time playing in the gray area between black and white, good and evil. It’s getting great reviews.
So why didn’t I like it? Why was reading it like doing homework? Disclaimer: I’m not a good historian. The time frame – the 30s to the 50s – is not a time I lived through and while I adored Schindler’s List, the thrill of a story that was set everywhere from Cuba to New York to France to Germany to Russia is not very thrilling, in and of itself. Field Gray is dense, very talky, and I found myself wondering as I read it just what the mystery was. I certainly wasn’t in suspense, because I knew darn well Bernie was not going to get killed and other than that, I didn’t care about anybody else in the book.
Needless to say, Field Gray is not my fave. Boy, will my face be red if it wins the Edgar! But I have to call them as I see them, since the name of this game is “If Literary Lunchbox gave out Edgars…”
For the quality of the writing and in recognition that Field Gray is just not my cup of tea and so perhaps I am judging too harshly, I put it above 1222, but below The Devotion of Suspect X. Come April, we’ll see.
- Gone by Mo Hayder
- The Ranger by Ace Atkins
- The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino
- Field Gray by Philip Kerr
- 1222 by Anne Holt