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 ... a terrifically complex tale ... 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.
Readers of the Bernie Gunther novels over the years will remember some of the moral grey areas Philip Kerr has described in such absorbing detail, although they won't be as hard on the hero as he is on himself ... The novel itself is every bit as powerful and atmospheric and addictively page-turning as all the ones that came before it, but the final pages are extra bittersweet because ... the master's hand is now still; mystery lovers have this one last book to savor.
Bernie’s search rapidly leads him into dark waters and a labyrinthine plot to salvage sunken gold stolen in the war from the Jews of Salonika. What follows, full of mordant humor, pacy action and rich, three-dimensional characters, confirms what Kerr’s fans have long known: that he has few, if any, rivals to match him among modern thriller writers.
As always, historical facts underpin the novel and many of its characters are historical figures. Two of the vilest are Max Mertens, eventually convicted of war crimes against the Jews of Salonika but released after just eight months and Alois Brunner, an SS killer who evaded arrest and assassination into old age ... Kerr wisely anchors his plot to the past, the weight of which adds tension to a narrative that might otherwise flounder. Even then, Greeks Bearing Gifts often lacks the cohesive energy that galvanized the Berlin Noir Trilogy...and later Gunther novels ... Gunther still has his moments ... Kerr’s readers, for consolation, may instead consider a return to the beginning where we can get to know this flawed hero all over again.
Hopefully, this won’t be the end of Gunther ... But if this is the final book in the series, Kerr gives readers one last unputdownable ride. Greeks Bearing Gifts is masterfully written and full of suspense, and the amount of details that Kerr packed into his latest novel is incredible. . . readers will feel like they’re back in 1957 with Bernie Gunther, and more than a few fans will find themselves savoring every page while hoping the story never comes to an end.
Although Mr. Kerr has changed the setting of his plot, he has not shifted from the basic theme of his many shrewd and grim books that focus on the past in a manner that reminds many readers of the peril of forgetting it ... What is remarkable is how Mr. Kerr steeps his stories in irony. Bernie is a man who has suffered much in a tough life and he is a tough man, hardened and cynical in the manner of Phillip Marlowe, another hard-boiled detective to whom he is often compared. What makes this latest Bernie book notable is how it strikes a series of authentic notes. One of his characters is real, as alas, were many of the others. But in the epilogue that weaves together the cobweb of Nazis, Mr. Kerr notes that some of the killers did meet punishment at Greek hands despite the protests of the West German government. He has used Bernie’s insurance background very effectively in describing how cases came to be built against those who fed the evil appetites of the Nazi party.
At just over 500 pages, the book is too long—the earlier scenes set in Munich could be cut back. But Kerr skilfully weaves his detailed research into the narrative without sounding didactic or heavy-handed. Like its companion novels, the book is fast-paced, with vivid, sympathetic characters and evocative scenes. Athens in the 1950s is a city of intrigue, political instability and endemic corruption, where everyone, especially Gunther’s local fixer, has a network of cousins to open doors ... Kerr’s untimely death marks the loss not just of a great novelist but a memorable protagonist, whose wisecracking façade conceals a detective on a much deeper quest: how should a man live, especially when his soul is corroded by history, his own most of all.
Greeks Bearing Gifts is the 13th Bernie book, each of them a polished gem of unsentimental detective writing echoing Chandler and Hammett in spirit, if not language ... in the latest novel he creates a vivid mosaic of Greek life at a key moment in the long life of the debt-ridden, corrupt, infinitely beautiful country ... The entire series of books balances on the shoulders of Bernie Gunther, surely one of the most likable and confounding characters in modern detective fiction—or, it should be said, in contemporary English literature in general. For that is what Kerr has created, not mere formulaic genre novels, and Bernie’s moral ambiguity has a lot to do with the magnetic power of Kerr’s work.
Greeks Bearing Gifts is as dark and as smart as anything else in this historical crime series, showcasing Kerr’s atmospheric writing, his meticulous research and his gift for witty dialogue. References to Greek mythology are packed in for those who know what to look for, and I even learnt a bit about Greece and Greek history. If you haven’t read any of Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels before this is a great place to start. It’s the 13th in the series but reads like the work of a young, fresh author, full of ideas. That’s what Kerr’s writing is like, and like every other Bernie Gunther novel Greeks Bearing Gifts can stand by itself on its own merits, not merely as one part of a series.
Kerr conducted prodigious and meticulous research. The backdrop of every Gunther novel is accompanied by a touch of a history lesson, subtly delivered, so that it does not interrupt the plot and action. What of Bernie Gunther the man? On the surface he’s a self-serving cynic, often rough in attitude and behaviour, with a mordant sense of humor ... Greeks Bearing Gifts demonstrates all Gunther’s failings and redeeming qualities.
So begins a byzantinely plotted escapade in which the oft-noted similarity between Bernie and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is more evident than ever ... Beyond Marlowe, though, there’s Bernie, looking for a way out of his personal slough of despond and back to himself. Bernie’s internal demons have always provided the compelling drama in this series, and here we loyal supporters are granted a ray of hard-won hope. It provides a great moment in an always-riveting series.
What follows, full of mordant humour, pacy action and rich, three-dimensional characters, confirms what Kerr’s fans have long known: that he has few, if any, rivals to match him among modern thriller writers.
As ever, Gunther's mordant witticisms run through the book ... Inspired by real people and events, the latest novel by the celebrated author of the Berlin Noir trilogy is a deep but breezy work in which even the most trustworthy characters can harbor dark secrets.
Once again, Kerr shows Bernie contending bravely if futilely against powerful forces whose full evil becomes clear only at the end. The good news for series fans is that an even better career may lie ahead for Bernie—as a spy.