Philip Kerr’s Field Gray - You Can't Tell the Good Guys From the Bad Guys

By , Contributor
Who would think to look for insights into our troubled times in a spy thriller? And in a historical spy thriller? And in a historical spy thriller that features a Nazi soldier as a detective?  Well, it’s Philip Kerr’s Field Gray (the title refers to the color of Nazi soldiers’ uniforms). This is his seventh novel featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther  was selected by the Times of London as thriller of the year in 2010.

With breathtaking British understatement, Kerr has said, “I believe that it’s important to take risks.” No kidding. In Field Gray, he denies the basic premise of the spy thriller or murder mystery, which is that there will be good guys and bad guys. Although a clever writer will keep us guessing as to who is who, we expect that there will eventually come a moment when we can figure out what happened, and feel relieved that once again good has triumphed over evil.

However, Gunther isn’t actually a detective here, which gives Kerr a great deal of freedom.  Rather, Gunther uses his skills as a detective to stay alive. This is a huge feat in itself, considering that he’s captured, used, manipulated, betrayed, and/or enslaved by the Americans, the Germans, the French, and the Russians. And that’s why this book is way more important than the average thriller.

The thing is, by showing how everyone exploits Gunther, Kerr is refusing to allow us to divide the world into good guys and bad guys. All the sides, all the players, are bad guys at one time or another. When for example Gunther protests the killing of Soviet partisans in 1941 (Field Gray skips back and forth in time), he is told that the partisans themselves had been killing civilians. This is now a well-documented historical fact. As historian Timothy Snyder recently showed in his important book Bloodlands, both sides on the Eastern Front in World War II engaged in mindless killing, killing for the sake of killing.

Although Kerr is a Brit, Field Gray has special relevance to our dilemmas in America at the moment. After 9/11 we felt pretty sure that we were the good guys…until the revelations about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and forced renditions and…well, you get the idea.

Isn’t this what we’re really mad about in America today?  It’s becoming harder and harder to believe that we’re the good guys and that we always use our military power to promote truth, justice, and the American way.  As Dumbledore tells Harry Potter, everyone is a mixture of the light and the darkness, and Field Gray forces us to confront that uncomfortable fact.

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