I lived and worked in Athens in the 1950s, and Philip Kerr's colorful new novel brought those times vividly to mind. His dead-on depictions rang true.
Kerr, who died March 23, left behind a terrifically complex tale, a propulsive spy novel that moves swiftly from Germany to Greece. This is his 13th novel starring wisecracking detective Bernie Gunther.
“Greeks” opens in 1957, with Bernie avoiding Berlin, where Nazis are finding their way back into government; others are distancing themselves from having had anything to do with the Third Reich. Bernie grows a beard, takes a new name, and creates a legend of his past life.
Though never a party member, Bernie was a detective under the Third Reich, and that's enough to be targeted by the Nazi hunters or newly righteous Germans. So he's gone to ground in Munich.
A Munich detective spots Bernie at a funeral and remembers him. He threatens to put him on an Interpol watch list unless Bernie helps the corrupt detective carry out a heist. Bernie agrees but turns the tables on the corrupt cop, but not before a couple of bodies lie dead, murdered, at Bernie's feet with him as a principal suspect.
Bernie talks his way out of the situation but still needs a lawyer to deal with his involvement in the heist. He remembers one he knew in Berlin who now practices in Munich, a Dr. Max Merten (the name of a real-life SS officer responsible for overseeing the collection of gold, jewelry and other valuables from the large Greek Jewish community in Salonica).
Befriending Bernie, Merten tells him that he's close to one of Germany's largest insurance companies, an old firm that did business with the Nazis. Knowing Bernie's background, Merten persuades Munich RE to employ Bernie as a claims adjuster.
Impressed, his new employers dispatch him to Athens to investigate a seemingly routine claim for a German vessel sunk in Greek waters.
Bernie is met by Achilles Garlopis, a junior Munich RE employee who quickly assumes the role of Bernie's assistant. Street-smart, Achilles is also self-admittedly something of a coward.
Bernie suspects that there is much more to the foundering of the Doris. The investigation leads to a murder scene – not the last one in this fast-paced tale.
The tempo quickens as Bernie and Achilles chase down other shadowy figures implicated in the voyage of the Doris. 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.
Peter Earnest is the founding executive director of the International Spy Museum and a 35-year veteran of the CIA. He wrote this for the Washington Post.