Top critical review
Not brilliant, but still looking forward to the next one
22 October 2018
Much as I would love to give this book the full five stars that Kerr deserves for the full gamut of his Bernie Gunther novels, I found that the opening chapters (as with Prussian Blue) unconvincing. All the earlier novels began by describing Bernie’s changed circumstances with some care, placing him within the new situation in a way that drew the reader in. The time, the location, the issues that he was facing, were all of a piece, so that the story settled into a new narrative with the ring of authenticity. This came across strongly when describing Bernie’s life in Argentina and Cuba, and especially so when recounting the Weimar years and the days of the Third Reich, which set a high standard of blending fact and fiction. My parents lived through that time, coming to England a few weeks before WW2, and so I grew up with many accounts of that time, which Kerr’s earlier work accurately confirmed. Alas, there was nothing like that in this book. The first few chapters are not really believable, relying too much on coincidences, some rather hastily written scenes, and less than brilliant dialogue. However, once we get to the point where Bernie is offered the job as an insurance adjuster, the book begins to take off. I got the sense that Kerr’s impatience to reach this point got the better of him -and his editor. For a while I felt Kerr was back in gear, setting up an intriguing plot and some interesting characters, but then things started to unravel. The characters were not as well drawn as in previous novels, often sliding into clichés, and towards the last third there was much clunky dialogue which often veered in potted history lessons and ‘explanations’ of Bernie’s attitudes, which would have been better shown rather than described. Some commentators have accused him of misogyny, but this is to apply current views to the past. Bernie was clearly suspicious of women, but hating them is an accusation too far, and one that imposes current views onto a past context. Recall the opening of Hartley’s ‘The Go Between’: The past is another country, they do things differently there’. One of the qualities of an historical novel is to stay within the time, for that was how things were. For example, when Bernie was a detective in Berlin, he clearly had a less than an enlightened attitude towards gay men, which was probably typical then. To have drawn him as a modern liberal would have been as misplaced as giving him a cell phone and an email account. Yes, he participated in some awful events hinted at in ‘Greeks’ but described more fully during his interrogation in ‘Field Grey’ and elsewhere, where we see a man with a conscience who has nevertheless been caught up in a world that was not of his making, and one he detested, but also wished to survive with as little damage to his integrity as possible. The Bernie of earlier works was more complex than the Bernie in this novel, and that could also be said of other characters here. Overall, there was lack of one of Kerr’s key skills: describing the landscape of the past in a convincing manner. I have been to Athens and several of the Greek islands some dozen times but, overall, did not get the sense of how it might have been some 60 years ago; it was all rather a pale wash that did not clearly locate events within the frame of 1957 beyond some general references to the political leaders of the time. In wondering what Kerr might have drawn on, I did note that the film ‘Boy on a Dolphin’ was released in 1957. Set on the island of Hydra (briefly mentioned in ’Greeks’) its plot revolves around the search for sunken Greek artifacts, and includes a crooked art dealer who is involved in selling looted artifacts to Nazis. As the film was shot on location in Hydra and Athens, it obviously depicted the physical circumstances of the times, and thus might have been a reference source. Hydra’s neighbouring island, Spetses holds an important place in modern literature. Called ‘Phraxos’ by John Fowles in his novel ‘The Magus’ , Spetses features in key scenes in the concluding chapters of ‘Greeks’. Here I was reminded that the Fowles’ novel -also set in the 1950s- dealt with, among other themes, two issues also found in ‘Greeks’: a central character’s possible collaboration with the Nazis, exploring what was done in the spirit of ‘making the best of things’ in appalling times, and how this might be interpreted in hindsight by others. Running through this was the main character’s problematic and broken relationship with a woman, which revealed attitudes not unlike Bernie’s . But these, of course, are my associations with ‘Greeks’, and many other novels have explored the issue of trying to survive in extreme circumstances when one’s moral compass is pulled hither and thither by the exigencies of the times. Yes, there is something unfair in wanting a writer to write what we would like them to write, and while I put my hand up to this, I am still hoping that Kerr’s final novel will hold more of the qualities that have made Bernie Gunther an enduring and very believable character even if, literally or metaphorically, one might think twice about getting into bed with him. Overall, in the ‘the rag and bone shop’ of Bernie’s heart their dwelt the soul of a decent policeman who strove to play his part in making a better world. The publishers inform us that this final book is set in the closing days of the Weimar Republic, thus in some ways returning Bernie to his beginning. I am looking forward to reading it.