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Book Review – “Greeks Bearing Gifts”

Kerr NovelI’ve been a big fan of Bernie Gunther ever since I read the March Violets trilogy in the early ’90’s. Kerr’s insight, to transfer the techniques and plots tropes of ’40’s film noir to the context of Nazi Germany, worked well to generate dramatic tension and an overwhelming atmosphere of danger, corruption, and doom. Bernie Gunther, Kerr’s protagonist, the ex-Kripo homicide inspector, is a solid, believable character, basically decent but compelled by fate to work with the worst, a survivor who still can’t quench his cop’s instinct to find the guilty man, regardless of the cost.

Kerr has also performed the remarkable feat of sustaining interest as the series continues. Many fictional detectives peter out as series go on and authors run out of steam and invention. There’s also the fact that the reader always knows that Gunther will survive since he’s the narrator. Yet Kerr still provides taut, suspenseful stories. This is quite an achievement. The Lady From Zagreb is a good, recent example of this.

Unfortunately, Greeks Bearing Gifts doesn’t quite meet this admittedly high standard. This is unfortunate since I’d looked forward to reading the novel for some months beforehand. It had the plus of being located mostly in Greece, one of my favorite places in the world. So you can say I read the book predisposed to be pleased.

While it was a pretty typical entry in the series, I didn’t experience the suspense the other novels succeeded in generating. Without trying to give away any spoilers, the plot followed the standard arc for a Bernie Gunther novel. Living undercover as an insurance adjuster in Munich, he’s sent to Athens where he’s quickly embroiled in intrigue involving Nazi profiteers, Israeli vengeance squads, and gold stolen from the Jews of Thessalonika. Add in, of course, the standard Gunther love interest, this time a righteously stacked Greek babe who conveniently speaks fluent German.¬† (A notable point of the Gunther novels is the fact that this this middle-aged, beat to hell guy who’s always on the lam and short of funds still manages to bag more sex than James Bond.)

Despite these colorful plot elements, it never seemed Gunther was in any serious danger during the novel’s course. There was violence and vivid depictions of bad characters doing horrible things, but I never got the sense of Bernie with his back against the wall I got from the other novels, locked in some sort of horrible dilemma, moral or otherwise, with no choices left but bad ones.¬†Part of this stemmed from the fact that the principal villain in the piece, a particularly odious, vicious, real life Nazi named Alois Brunner, only appears in passing without posing any real threat to Gunther. I’ll also note that Kerr does a good job illustrating how eager supposed anti-Nazis like Konrad Adenauer were to rehabilitate Nazis and welcome them back into German society. Hopefully, this novel is just an off effort rather than the beginning of a decline.

I recommend this book to anyone who likes the Bernie Gunther series or interested in European WWII and post WWII history or just looking for a good summer read.

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