1954 and Bernie Gunther, ex-Kripo detective, reluctant SS member and wanted war criminal is in Cuba. Feeling increasingly vulnerable he decides to escape by boat to Haiti. Only fate plays a poor hand and he’s intercepted by the US Navy and, after time in Guantanamo prison, he’s passed onto US intelligence. From New York he’s flown back to Berlin and exhaustively interviewed concerning his war time activities in France and Russia. The record shows that Bernie has performed some horrendous atrocities, and it’s true that his history is far from saintly, but putting the record straight is no simple matter when some of his former comrades are prepared to put his neck in a noose to save their own. Ultimately he is given a choice: help French intelligence identify a wanted war criminal or go on trial and face the consequences. Always the prickly pragmatist, Bernie once again becomes the pawn in a larger game, as his past catches up and threatens to overwhelm him.
Field Grey is the seventh Bernie Gunther novel. In my view it’s one of the best crime series presently being written. The last book – If the Dead Rise Not – was probably the weakest book in the series (despite winning the CWA Ellis Peters award for historical crime fiction), but Field Grey is a real return to form. In fact, I think it’s the strongest of the seven. It is a big book linking together parts of Bernie’s life between 1931 and 1954 and a connected set of events and actors in Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia. As usual, Kerr manages to blend in many well-known real life characters and events, and this book focuses in particular on Erich Mielke, a communist who murdered two policemen in 1931 and later became head of the Stasi in post-war East Germany. The plotting is intricate, with the flashbacks skilfully interwoven with the 1954 narrative, and dotted with insightful observations and history. The pacing is well judged, the characterization excellent, the dialogue and action credible and engaging, and the balance between show and tell just right. A very entertaining read. It is going to take a very good book to knock this off the top of the best read of 2011 list.