I only came across Philip Kerr’s iconic Berlin homicide detective turned hotel detective turned private eye turned SS-officer turned Abwehr officer turned spy, okay I’ll stop here for the sake of readability, very recently. Yet, he made my list of favorite heroes right away.
Wait what? The hero is an SS-officer?
Yes, and he still is a true hero, the good guy. Trust me, it would take too long to explain. Just this much: he did not volunteer, it was made clear to him by Reinhard Heydrich himself that he could not refuse. This oddity and the internal conflict it creates in Gunther makes up some of the series’ appeal.
I started reading the series with Field Grey, which is the seventh of fourteen books. This mishap did not at all interfere with my pleasure reading. Kerr manages to build the story quite nicely without any prior knowledge of the edgy, uncharming, sarcastic character. Plus, Field Grey is like Bernhard Gunther’s autobiography. It covers most of his, let’s call it colorful, life.
However, I would recommend reading March Violets first. It makes the transition from today’s world into the reality of the 1920s and 1930s Weimar Republic as well as the Third Reich much easier. A Berliner and veteran of World War I, Bernhard Gunther’s colorful life starts in the final years of the first democratic Germany: the Weimar Republic. For today’s reader, especially for a non-German, easing into this world of the fading ‘Roaring Twenties’, the Great Depression, high unemployment, and political instability takes a little time.
The first democratic Germany: Weimar 1918 – 1933
As someone who grew up in Germany and in the German school system, I was quite familiar with the atmosphere of the time. The Third Reich, its roots and crimes make up a sizeable portion of German history classes. Yet, Kerr’s meticulously researched backstories and biographies of the times’ VIPs make the novels an entertaining and educational read.
I was surprised to read that Hugo Boss grew big as a uniform tailor, a past that the German fashion company has by now worked out and published. The Reich’s main cast, Himmler, Goering, Heydrich and some of the lesser knowns like Arthur Nebe and Adolf Eichmann feature in supporting roles throughout the series. Their characters and quirks, like occult beliefs and practices, odd hobbies and interest, and sometimes even their hidden homosexuality or Jewish family history make up both educational and entertaining moments.
Later in Bernhard’s life, in his fifties, also great post-war personalities get roles and cameos: Ernest Hemingway, Evita Perón, and also Erich Mielke, head of the East German Stasi.
Okay, Gunther is good. What does he have to do with Reacher?
On the surface, nothing much, both were cops and soldiers. Reacher was both at the same time and Gunther the one then the other and again the one. As an investigator in the Wehrmacht’s War Crimes Bureau (educational moment, that actually existed) he was both for a very short time.
What they share are the character traits one gets to know over time. After about twenty pages into Field Grey, I had a feeling of familiarity, a certain ‘I know this guy’ feeling. Both are no-nonsense, not easily excitable personalities, both are no angels, they ‘kill who needs killing’ as Lee Child might put it. Also, their big mouth, sarcasm and general problem dealing with authority figures are so similar, almost as if they were father and son.