I lived and worked in Athens in the 1950s, and Philip Kerr’s colorful new novel “Greeks Bearing Gifts” brought those times vividly back to mind. His dead-on depictions of the city and its boisterous residents, and the deep animosity many still bear toward their wartime German oppressors, rang true.
Kerr, who died March 23, has left behind a terrifically complex tale. “Greeks Bearing Gifts” is a propulsive spy novel that moves swiftly from Germany to Greece. This is his 13th novel starring the wisecracking detective Bernie Gunther, and word has it that a 14th is slated to be published next year.
“Greeks” opens in 1957, with Bernie avoiding Berlin, where too many Nazis are finding their way back into government, while others are distancing themselves from having had anything to do with the Third Reich and its attendant evils. Like a spy creating a new cover, Bernie grows a beard, takes a new name, Christof Ganz, and creates a legend of his past life: a German nobody having no connection with the police — let alone the Third Reich.
Though never a Nazi party member, Bernie was a police detective under the Third Reich, and that’s enough in Germany to be targeted by the Nazi hunters or newly righteous Germans. So he’s shed his badge and gun and gone to ground in Munich, a city he and his wife, Kirsten, lived in before she died.
Jobs in Munich are scarce, so Bernie gladly accepts one as a mortuary assistant in one of the city hospitals. He likes being alone, he’s quite used to dead bodies, and it pays. On top of that, a local undertaker tips him for referrals and for filling in on occasion as a pallbearer — no relation to the deceased required!
A Munich detective spots Bernie at a funeral and remembers him from his days as a detective. He threatens to put him on an Interpol watch list unless Bernie helps the corrupt detective carry out a heist. Suspecting a setup with himself as the sacrifice, Bernie agrees to the scheme but turns the tables on the corrupt cop, but not before a couple of bodies lie dead, murdered, at Bernie’s feet with him as a principal suspect.
Not surprisingly, Bernie talks his way out of the situation with the local police but still needs a lawyer to deal with his involvement in the heist. He remembers one he knew in Berlin who now practices in Munich, a Dr. Max Merten (the name of a real-life S.S. officer responsible for overseeing the collection of gold, jewelry and other valuables from the large Greek Jewish community in Salonica).
Befriending Bernie, Merten tells him that he’s close to one of Germany’s largest insurance companies, Munich RE, an old firm that did business with the Nazis during the war. Knowing Bernie’s background as an investigator, Merten persuades Munich RE to employ Bernie as a claims adjuster.
His first assignment is looking into a break-in at the Glyptothek, Munich’s oldest public museum. Impressed with his handling of the two jobs, his new employers give Bernie a raise, an expense account, a company car and dispatch him to Athens to investigate a seemingly routine claim for a German vessel sunk in Greek waters off the Peloponnese coast.
Bernie is met on arrival by Achilles Garlopis, a fat, junior Munich RE employee who quickly assumes the role of Bernie’s assistant. Street-smart, Achilles is also self-admittedly something of a coward. He’s been manning the office and answering the phone in the absence of the full-time investigator. Bernie suspects that there is much more to the foundering of the Doris, a hunch that proves correct. The investigation leads to a murder scene — a gruesome killing but not the last one in this fast-paced tale.
The tempo quickens as Bernie and Achilles chase down other shadowy figures implicated in the voyage of the ill-fated Doris. In one gripping scene, a tough Israeli Nazi hunter holds Bernie’s life in her hands while she and Bernie sit chatting in plain sight on the top tier of the storied Olympic Stadium.
This is but one of many heart-racing moments in a beautifully written novel by a gifted writer who has left us too soon.
Peter Earnest is the founding executive director of the International Spy Museum and a 35-year veteran of the CIA.
By Philip Kerr
Marian Wood/Putnam. 511 pp. $27