Greeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr

Review published on May 8, 2018.

When Bernie Gunther burst onto the scene in the early 90s he was a shot in the arm for historical crime fiction. So much so that Kerr’s decision to walk away from his character after three novels was a genuine disappointment. Fortunately, fifteen years later he returned to his great creation to tell us about Bernie Gunther’s post-war experience. Greeks Bearing Gifts is the latest volume in the splendid adventures of Gunther PI. It is certainly one of the finest novels in a series of genuine quality; humour, history, moral debate, and top notch crime solving. Kerr is a master at folding complex themes and storylines into fast-moving entertainment that crackles and fizzes with excitement. Sadly, Kerr died earlier this year and as one of our best crime writers he will be missed. There is one more instalment of the Gunther series to come and they have left an indelible mark on literary historical fiction.

Greeks Bearing Gifts has the classic feel of a noir, it’s a hard-boiled detective story. Cynical and experienced Gunther gets caught up in a chain reaction that threatens to get out of control and consume him. Kerr still manages to reveal nuances and aspects of Bernie’s character that we haven’t seen before, which has been a feature of the series. For Kerr, it has always been about Bernie Gunther’s character and the moral questions his life raises. In the Berlin noir trilogy, Gunther had to learn to live with being a detective in a totalitarian state. Later he worked for the Nazis during the war in very dubious circumstances, but there was no other choice (was there?) After the war he was forced to become someone else, adopt new identities, to avoid paying for his own crimes, but also crimes he did not commit. Bernie can never escape the past, it isn’t just the memory – it’s the way it seeps into the present. We have to reflect on anti-hero Gunther’s actions in the light of how we would behave ourselves. The prologue to Greeks Bearing Gifts puts the moral choices and consequences Bernie Gunther faces front and centre:

“For us the past is like the exterior wall in a prison yard; chances are, we’ll never get over it.”

It’s true, he won’t:

“If only the marks and traces of Nazism on the poisoned, bivalve soul of Bernie Gunther could have been erased with such facility.”

Yet, Kerr takes complex moral and philosophical themes and presents them in the most entertaining, page turning, thrilling read you could hope to sit down with.

January, 1957, Christof Ganz is earning a living as a night porter at the Schwabing hospital in Munich, during the day he supplements his income by acting as a pall bearer for a local funeral home (he also gets a commission on recommendations to the relatives of the dead). Cynical as ever, always inappropriate with the jokes, this is Bernie Gunther’s latest incarnation.

An old US ordinance explosion mutilated a piano player, his employer identifies the victim from his Dachau tattoo. Bernie suggests the name of a good undertaker. When he acts as pall bearer he is recognised by Schramma, a PI, who coerces Gunther into helping him on a job. Local politician Max Merten wanted a donor to his party checked out, he’s worried about taking funds from an old Nazi. It’s more complicated, General Heinkel is working on a sting operation designed by the DDR to bring down Merten’s colleague the Foreign Minister, currently negotiating the set up of the EEC. Schramma has a plan to steal the money that Gunther foils, but two men are dead. Merten is grateful and gets Gunther a job as a claims adjuster for Munich RE. After proving his worth, Gunther is given the job of assessing a shipping claim in Greece – this will be no holiday!

Kerr has always been playful in his writing, as this story involves a claims adjuster for an insurance company he pays homage to the noir classic Double Indemnity, his boss is called Deitrich and the man he replaces in Greece is called Walther Neff (Barbara Stanwick played Mrs. Deitrichson and Fred McMurray Walter Neff in the film). Add to this the usual wise cracking and wryly witty observations for a counter balance to the dark corners the novel explores.

The first fifty pages could make a novel in their own right, it seems like scene setting for the main story but it turns out to be integral to the novels themes: dodgy insurance claims, stolen/lost Jewish family possessions, Israeli intelligence operations, a femme fatale, Greek policemen, the founding of the EEC, and a nod to the #metoo campaign. A pitch-perfect crime novel.

A guide for readers’ groups will follow shortly.

Paul Burke 5/5

Greeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr
Quercus 9781784296520 hbk Apr 2018

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