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Literature / Field Grey

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Field Grey is a 2010 novel by Philip Kerr. It is the seventh novel in the Bernie Gunther detective series.

The opening finds Bernhardt "Bernie" Gunther in Cuba in 1954. Bernie has been working for gangster Meyer Lansky, but a Cuban intelligence officer wants to turn Bernie into a spy/informant. So Bernie takes his boat and sets out for Haiti, carrying along a fetching young lady named Melba who is going with him because she's a Castro revolutionary who's wanted for shooting a cop.


Taking along Melba proves to be a serious mistake. Bernie is pulled over by a U.S. Navy patrol in the waters off of Guantanamo, and both he and Melba are arrested. Soon after the Americans realize who he is. A series of interrogations during Bernie's stay in brutal American prisons fill in much of his life during and immediately after the war, including his hunt for fugitive German communist Erich Mielke in France soon after the French surrender in 1940, his experience of the Holocaust as leader of an SS unit in the Ukraine in summer 1941, his capture by the Russians at Konigsberg in 1945, and his suffering as a Soviet prisoner 1945-46. Finally, the Americans reveal their ultimate objective: they want to capture Erich Mielke, and turn him into a double agent.



  • Anachronic Order: There's a Framing Device set in 1954, which is interspersed throughout with a series of flashbacks from 1931 (Bernie investigates the murder of two Berlin cops by the Communists), 1940 (Bernie hunts for Erich Mielke in occupied France), 1941 (Bernie witnesses the horrors of the Eastern Front), and 1945-46 (Bernie is captured at Konigsberg and becomes a prisoner of war). The previous six Bernie Gunther novels had recounted his career both before and after the war but this was the first one to recount Bernie's experiences During the War. This started a trend in the series, with the next three novels (Prague Fatale, A Man Without Breath, and The Lady From Zagreb) detailing more of Bernie's wartime experiences.
  • Argentina Is Nazi-Land: In 1954, Bernie has an Argentinian passport. He mentions to an American interrogator that he lived for a while in Argentina, which has lots of Nazis.
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  • Bad to the Last Drop: Bernie thinks the coffee at the CIA office in Berlin tastes "like stewed socks".
  • Been There, Shaped History: Why did Erich Mielke escape arrest for the murders of Anlauf and Lenck in 1931? Because Bernie's partner in the Berlin Kripo (criminal police) was a communist sympathiser who helped Mielke get away.
  • Big Ol' Unibrow: Bernie's observations of the rather savage-looking Ukrainian that has been tasked with murdering him include that the Ukrainian has "one continuous eyebrow", as well as more hair on his ears than a pig.
  • The Book Cipher: Bernie exchanges messages with the Stasi via classified ads and a Bible in the sitting room of a church.
  • Buxom Is Better: In pretty much every novel, despite his general world-weary cynicism, Bernie manages to express his fondness for a nice rack. In the first chapter he observes Graham Greene fondling a Cuban prostitute's large breasts. Much later, when he finds himself reunited with his old girlfriend Elisabeth, he describes her as "well-endowed".
  • Call-Forward:
    • In the 1941 flashback, As Arthur Nebe tells Bernie that he might as well stop worrying himself about Jews, because "maybe if there are enough pogroms in Europe they'll get their fucking homeland". They did, for that reason, in 1948.
    • Heydrich says of Himmler that "one of us will destroy the other". That happens in 1942 (Heydrich was actually assassinated by the Czech Resistance, but in Kerr's novel Prague Fatale Himmler has him poisoned while he's recovering, which is a Real Life rumour).
    • After Bernie wonders if Mielke having family in East Berlin might make him reluctant to come over to the West, his CIA handler says that he can bring them over too, because "it's not like there's a wall stopping them from coming."
  • Central Theme: The unsavory activities of the United States in the post-war era and how much America has failed to live up to its ideals. Bernie betrays his CIA handlers in the end because of how badly they've mistreated him, and at the end he reflects that he dislikes Americans even more than brutal communists like Erich Mielke precisely because the USA is supposed to stand for something better.
  • Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys: There is much German triumphalism following the fall of France in 1940. In 1954, Bernie takes some schadenfreude in how the French Army "got its ass kicked — again — in Vietnam".
  • Continuity Nod: Many references to past novels in the Bernie Gunther series. Bernie tells the Americans interrogating him in Landesberg that he rejoined the Kripo in 1938 because Heydrich forced him to, so Bernie could catch a Serial Killer murdering young girls. This is the plot of The Pale Criminal. Bernie remembers murdering Arthur Nebe in Vienna in 1948; this is A German Requiem.
  • Deadly Gas: In 1940 Paris an enemy tries to kill Bernie by unscrewing the cap to a fire extinguisher in his room; the fire extinguisher turns to phosgene gas when it hits the air. The maid saves Bernie just in time.
  • Dead Person Conversation: While he's in prison in 1954, Bernie dreams that he has a brief one of these with Adolf Hitler himself. The fact that he's sleeping in the same prison cell Hitler occupied in 1923 (and has just had his first drink in weeks) might have something to do with this.
  • Downer Beginning: The opening chapters in 1954 find Bernie getting arrested by the Americans in Cuba, and then enduring some pretty brutal American prisons as he's interrogated about his past.
  • Evil Lawyer Joke: Bernie describes Haensch, a lawyer and Nazi war criminal interned with him at Landesberg, as having "a lawyer's slimy face to match his lawyer's slimy manner and even slimier patter."
  • Foregone Conclusion: The final story arc of the book has Bernie and the CIA working together to kidnap Erich Mielke and bring him to the West. Since Mielke is a Historical Domain Character and he ran the Stasi in East Germany for 45 years until East Germany collapsed, it's obvious that this plot will not be successful, but not obvious why.
  • Framing Device: The first parts of the 1954 section of the novel are this. After Bernie is captured by the Americans, he tells a series of interrogators Anachronic Order stories about his past, centering mostly around Erich Mielke (meeting Mielke in 1931, deliberately not arresting him in 1940, and meeting him again when Bernie was a POW in 1946).
  • Hiding Behind the Language Barrier: Bernie, Weltz, and Rascher are put on a train out of Czechoslovakia, guarded by a Red Army soldier from the Ukraine. Bernie figures out that the Ukrainian is a killer who is going to eliminate them. After telling the Ukrainian in German that he's ugly and his mother was a whore, Bernie decides that he doesn't really speak it. Then he turns and tells his German companions in German that the Ukrainian is there to murder them. Weltz and Rascher don't believe him, which is why they die moments later.
  • Historical Domain Character: Many, as usual for the Bernie Gunther series. The first chapter finds Bernie in Santiago, Cuba in 1954, hanging out in a brothel with a "Señor Greene" who is strongly implied to be Graham Greene. Arthur Nebe, sensing that Bernie's heart is not in mass murder, has him transferred back to Berlin from the Russian front. Reinhard Heydrich interacts with Bernie once again, sends him off to France to hunt for Erich Mielke. Mielke turns out to be a pivotal character in the novel, interacting with Bernie repeatedly throughout the narrative.
  • Institutional Apparel: Bernie finds the striped prison outfit he's given to wear in Landesberg depressing.
  • I Owe You My Life: Subverted, and then played straight. Bernie saves Erich Mielke's life in 1931 when he rescues him from Nazi thugs, and then rescues him again in 1940 when he recognizes Mielke but does not hand him over to the SS. When Mielke arranges to spring Bernie from a POW camp in 1946 he makes it out as returning the favor—but at the last second Bernie realizes that their Russian escort is going to kill him instead, because Bernie knows too much. Bernie kills the Russian instead and escapes. At the end of the novel, in 1954, Mielke plays it straight, giving Bernie money and exit papers after Bernie saved him still a third time, this time from capture by the CIA.
  • Just Following Orders: Germans use this excuse, a lot. Bernie's old police buddy Becker, whom Bernie meets in the Ukraine in 1941 right after Becker has massacred thousands of Jews, cites this reason. The unrepentant Nazis that Bernie meets in Landesberg prison in 1954 say the same.
  • The Killer Was Left-Handed: How Bernie solves a murder in the Russian POW camp. He sees wounds on the right side of the killer's face and body and realizes the killer was left-handed. This leads him to the only left-handed person he knows in the camp with a motive: his best friend.
  • Let Off by the Detective: Bernie identifies Erich Mielke in a French detention camp in 1940, but does not ID him. Why? Because earlier that same day his SS companions shot a bunch of prisoners by the side of the road, and Bernie explains that he was not in the mood to expose anyone else to the SS at that moment.
  • Lowered Recruiting Standards: In 1941 Nebe rejects Bernie's request for transfer to a front-line unit because Bernie, born in 1896, is too old. Bernie tells an interrogator that by 1944 there was no such thing as too young or too old for the German army, which is why Bernie found himself fighting alongside teenagers and grandpas as part of the last-ditch defense of Konigsberg.
  • Maybe Ever After: The book ends with Erich Mielke being uncharacteristically decent, giving Bernie new identity papers and a chance to go off and be happy with Mielke's old friend (and Bernie's old girlfriend) Elisabeth. But the iron law of the Bernie Gunther novels is that Bernie can't be happy for very long, so when the chronological narrative moved forward again with The Lady from Zagreb, readers learn that Elisabeth left him.
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: The book ends with The Reveal that Bernie was working with Mielke, and betrayed his CIA handlers to Mielke and the East Germans. Bernie reflects that the main reason he did it was that the Americans treated him so brutally over months and months in captivity. (Philip Kerr's political point about the American practice of indefinite detention during the War on Terror is not subtle.)
  • P.O.W. Camp: A few. Bernie spends some time in a terrifying, brutal Russian POW camp not far from Stalingrad. Then he's employed as slave labor at a uranium mine in Czechoslovakia. In the 1940 section of the book he goes to a French camp for enemy aliens that he describes as "worse than Dachau."
  • Sex for Solace: 1954 Bernie wonders why gorgeous Melba went to bed with him when he's old enough to be her father. He concludes that she's looking for solace, seeing as how she's a fugitive who's fleeing the country after murdering a cop.
    "It was just that she was young and scared and lonely and wanted someone—anyone would have done, probably—to hold her and make her feel like the world cared about her."
  • Shout-Out: Anlauf and Lenck are murdered in 1931 outside a theater that is showing Greta Garbo in Mata Hari.
  • Smart People Play Chess:
    • Major Savostin of the Russian P.O.W. Camp where Bernie is held prisoner plays chess. He invites Bernie to play with him but Bernie demurs, observing that chess is the Russian national game because it's black-and-white and things are black and white in Russia.
    • Towards the end of the book, as Bernie is pulling off his last Batman Gambit, he finds himself clutching the last pre-war possession he still has: a fancy black knight chess piece, given to him by grandmaster Emanuel Lasker.
  • Spiteful Spit: When Bernie gets a moment alone and a chance, he spits on a picture of Stalin in the POW camp.
  • Talking to Themself: Bernie starts getting a little squirrelly while being held in solitary confinement on Governor's Island. He starts talking to himself, considering suicide before he talks himself out of it.
  • There Is Only One Bed: Played straight when Bernie and luscious young Melba get a hotel room for the night. Bernie says that he'll sleep on the floor, but Melba says the bed is comfortable "and there's room for two." Sex follows.
  • Title Drop: Bernie mentions the "field grey" uniforms worn by the Germans during the war, and explains the obvious symbolism, namely, that a field gray uniform makes it easy to hide dirt, similar to how the Nazis wanted to hide the crimes they were committing.
  • Wicked Cultured: Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most evil Nazis of all but a cultured, refined man. He plays piano with "his dead Christ hands" and quotes a 7th century Chinese philosopher as he