Philip Kerr Chases a Lethal Assassin
Wars seldom end when the peace accord is signed, and for the countless crimes committed relatively few tend to get punished. For months, years and decades people dedicate their lives to hunting those criminals down and bringing them to some form of justice, however symbolic and ethereal it might be in the end.
Needless to say, this creates a canvas ripe for the imaginative abilities of many authors, and few have made as good a use of it as Philip Kerr in his Bernie Gunther series.
In yet another one of his twisted adventures, titled Greeks Bearing Gifts, Bernie sets out on the trail of stolen spoils of war only to be met with a challenge far more dangerous than he could have ever anticipated.
The story begins with Bernie getting himself a new name as Christoph Ganz and finding a job as a claims adjuster for a major German insurance company. Needless to say, it doesn’t take long for a curious case to finds its way into his lap: Siegried Witzel, a former Wehrmacht soldier has claimed some rather large losses, and it seems as if they might be the belongings of Greek Jews deported to Auschwitz.
However, before any confrontation is possible, someone turns Siegried into a corpse. The signature of the crime rings true for a certain Lieutenant Leventis, recognizing it as the work of a highly-placed assassin who eluded justice for so many years. Uniting their strength, Leventis and Bernie set out on the trail of a man responsible for too much misery to describe… a lethal assassin who may have never left the city.
A Fascinating Microcosm
I will admit this is my first introduction to the works of the late Philip Kerr, and I found myself fairly surprised at the fact I had never heard about him before. The very first notable aspect which jumps out at me is the time period chosen. For obvious reasons, many English-speaking authors will avoid using Nazi or post-war Germany as a base of operations for a series of novels, but this is precisely the road Kerr chose to walk.
With a clear aptitude for historical elements, the author must have done a grandiose amount of research for his ability to recreate the time period in fine and accurate details. In this specific novel, we are taken to mid 1950s Germany and Greece and given a good taste of how the events from ten years ago strongly colour everyday life. The people’s thoughts, fears and hopes are given a platform and in the end, for me they were a strong reminder of how little truly separates us from the people we consider evil.
As you might imagine, along the way we are treated to a fair excursion into the past of Nazi Germany, and while I gather some of you might be tired of descriptions repeated from one book to the next, it felt to me as if the author did bring some new aspects to the table.
For instance, we are given a glimpse of the opposition in ideologies which was alive within Germany at the time, the crimes of the Germans against the Greeks, the implications of working for the Third Reich, and the innumerable forgotten crimes never to be solved or even known about.
What’s great about the historical bits is the way in which Kerr integrates them into the story, spreading them out rather evenly so as not to overload us with too many morbid facts. They are often tied to the plot in one way or another, which is probably the best way of getting your readers to remember what you are attempting to teach them.
The Hunt is On
One element from which Greeks Bearing Gifts benefited greatly in my opinion was the simplicity of its structure, at least when we’re talking about the main plot. The events move along in a linear enough way and we are never confused about what’s happening or what Bernie is trying to do next.
There is always a clear goal in sight, whether it’s to ascertain the near-priceless cargo of a sunken ship or finding an assassin far beyond the ordinary. From a reader’s perspective, this makes it much easier to get into the story and become invested in the events themselves, which effectively almost turns us from observers into active participants.
Watching Bernie and Leventis work their way from one clue to the next running all over Athens is enjoyable in a way which brought me back to older detective novels following this simpler archetype.
While I may not have been acquainted with Bernie before this novel, I am already getting the impression there is far more to the character than can be found in one book. I would have probably benefited from reading some of the earlier novels in the series first to understand him better, but ultimately I found his characterization to be top-notch and likely written with newer readers such as myself in mind.
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Though the topics at hand might be grim, there is always some prevailing atmosphere of cynicism and dark humour floating around in the air, giving the extra bit of levity wherever it might be called for.
The Final Verdict
Greeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr has everything you could possibly want from a historical detective novel: the time and setting are unique, the plot is simple and engrossing and the characters a pleasure to learn about and follow.
Whether you are new to the series or a veteran of it, so long as you enjoy his genre I highly recommend you join Bernie Gunther on one of his last literary adventures.
(February 22, 1956 – March 23 2018)
Philip Kerr was a British author of historical detective thrillers best-known for the Bernie Gunther series which includes acclaimed novels such as March Violets and A German Requiem.
He has also penned the Scott Manson series, various children’s fiction books (The Eye of the Forest and The Grave Robbers of Genghis Khan for instance), as well as many standalone novels including A Philosophical Investigation and The Second Angel.