Greeks Bearing Gifts appeared just around the time of Philip Kerr’s death; it is the thirteenth Bernie Gunther novel and one more was finished and is due to be published. As a number of tributes noted, his best work may not have been in the Gunther series (particularly A Philosophical Investigation), but March Violets is certainly one of the outstanding debut novels for any series characters, very much in the Chandler tradition but set not in LA but Nazi Berlin, and the series was compelling because Kerr made Bernie Gunther one of the most interesting series detectives.
In the classic hard-boiled tradition, Gunther is defined by an inner-code, although given his circumstances his is more ambiguous and flexible than most. Being a cop in Nazi Germany, and in the Germany which followed, poses all sorts of moral and ethical questions, forces all sorts of compromises and makes Gunter always a bit of a flawed hero. He reminds me in many ways of Hammett’s Continental Op, especially in the way the Op tends to tell everyone the truth while everyone tells him lies. But where the Op is cynical, Gunther is somewhat more cautious and self-protective.
That is the heart of this novel. It opens in Munich in 1957, where Gunther is living under a false identity and working as a morgue attendant. Unfortunately he is recognised by a Munich cop, and drawn into a complex scheme involving payments from East Germany funneled through an ex-Nazi general to left-wing parties opposed to the proposed new EEC. In fact, the set up is a knowing riff on Chandler’s story ‘Pearls Are A Nuisance’, and when it leads to Gunther landing a job as an insurance investigator we get another, even more thinly-disguised riff on James M Cain’s Double Indemnity, on whose screenplay Chandler worked.
All this set up leads to Gunter being sent to Greece to investigate a claim for a sunken yacht, and as those two nod and wink set-ups would remind us if we needed reminding, nothing is what it seems. The claimant turns up dead and Gunther finds himself in the midst of a conspiracy or two involving gold stolen from the deported Jews of Salonika. And, of course, at odds with the Greek police, and perhaps with the Mossad too.
If this sounds complicated, it is, and that is the weak part of the story. It goes back and forth and back again, and there is a lot of explication, including the German and Greek post-war political landscapes. Bernie makes progress, but the problem keeps shifting, like the waters above the yacht. He’s assisted by the local agent for his insurance company, a familiar figure of familial corruption recognisable from any number of British spy thrillers, and forced to realise that his whole presence may be part of the set-up.
There is also a femme fatale, as you’d expect, and given that he is Bernie Gunther and not James Bond, he is rightly suspicious. But Elli’s character is another problem—that both denouements of their relationship take place off stage merely highlights her lack of depth as a potential betrayer. It’s odd, because he’s using shorthand for these characters from noir: one crucial villain is basically described as Sydney Greenstreet, which doesn’t work and actually doesn’t seem like it should be all that accurate.
But the denouement of the story itself is something that takes place off-stage. In one sense, that is a problem for a thriller, but in the sense of Bernie Gunther as a ture hard-boiled character, it works, at least in part because it has been set up by all that exposition. In hard-boiled fiction, as in real noir films, the world is not put right by the detective’s work: he must accept that its corruptions continue. Given the scale of the corruptions Kerr lays out, that really is the only possible ending. He adds an historical footnote regarding the real characters who appear in his tale, which simply reinforces that finish.
I would have preferred a more taut narrative, a more ambiguous femme fatale, and perhaps more direct resolution. But in the sense that Gunther loses in order to gain whatever closure he achieves, Kerr has kept the tale firmly in the tradition of one of the most fascinating detectives of our era. He will be missed.