Historical fiction has many virtues. It can help us understand how our lives have been shaped by the past. It can highlight the common threads in the human experience. And it can remind us of events in the past that historians have largely overlooked. For example, in the context of such a massive and shattering historical event as the Holocaust, the story of the 60,000 Jews in Salonika, Greece, has all too easily been forgotten. British crime novelist Philip Kerr reminds us of this tragic episode in the history of World War II in Greeks Bearing Gifts, the 13th novel in his bestselling series of Bernie Gunther detective novels.
Yet another identity for Bernie Gunther
The events in the Bernie Gunther novels span a period of two decades, from 1933 until the mid-1950s, encompassing the dozen years of the Third Reich and a dozen years of its aftermath. Greeks Bearing Gifts begins in January 1957. Former anti-Nazi homicide inspector Bernie Gunther is living in Munich under an assumed name and working as a hospital morgue attendant. After leaving the Berlin police, he had previously worked as a house detective at the world-famous Adlon Hotel, a war-crimes investigator for the German army (!), and a concierge at a luxury hotel on Cap Ferrat.
A strange sequence of events now finds Bernie in Athens operating in a new job as an insurance adjuster for one of Germany’s largest insurance companies, Munich Re. His investigation in Greece soon embroils him in a dangerous game with the ex-Nazi war criminals responsible for the deaths of 60,000 Jews in 1943—virtually the entire population of that ancient community, the oldest (and once the largest) Jewish settlement in Europe.
Greeks Bearing Gifts (Bernie Gunther #13) by Philip Kerr (2018) 522 pages ★★★☆☆
Solidly based on historical fact
As in the other books in his series, Kerr centers his story around documented historical fact. “This would seem like the worst story ever told if it had not happened,” Bernie recalls in the novel’s prologue. “All of it, every detail, exactly as I have described. That’s the thing about real life: it all looks so implausible right up until the moment when it starts to happen.” While that implausible fictional story is, indeed, a product of the author’s imagination, the historical backdrop is not.
In an author’s note at the conclusion of the novel, Kerr writes about the real-world characters and circumstances around which Greeks Bearing Gifts was built. That insurance company, Munich Re, did in fact “insure the barracks and ‘operations’ at Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, Ravensbrück, and Sachsenhausen”—as the company freely confesses on its website. Two of the central figures in Kerr’s tale—Dr. Max Merten and Alois Brunner—were indeed two of the three Nazi officers who engineered the deaths of Salonika’s Jews in the camps. (The third was Adolf Eichmann.) And the dysfunctional right-wing Greek police and government depicted in the novel closely resemble the real-world institutions of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.
Far from the best of the books in the series
Although the historical circumstances that dominate this novel are captivating, and Kerr successfully builds suspense throughout the book, it’s disappointing. There are far too many long, didactic conversations that are clumsily used to relate the history behind the story. And it’s simply too long. At more than 500 pages, Greeks Bearing Gifts could have benefited from some aggressive red-penciling.
The last Bernie Gunther novel?
Sadly, this may be the last book in the Bernie Gunther series. Philip Kerr passed away March 23, 2018. However, a fourteenth Bernie Gunther novel, Quercus, was announced for publication in 2019. Perhaps Kerr had finished the book and already sent it to the publisher.
For related reading
For links to reviews of the whole series, go to Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels.
My post 10 top nonfiction books about World War II may also interest you.
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