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Greeks Bearing Gifts

by Philip Kerr

Hardcover, 511 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $27 |


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Philip Kerr

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Taking a job as a claims adjuster for a major German insurance company in 1956 Munich, an undercover Bernie Gunther investigates the brutal murder of a thieving soldier in a case with ties to Nazi plunder that prompts his collaboration with a lieutenant who has been looking for an opportunity to bring an untouchable killer to justice.

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Excerpt: Greeks Bearing Gifts


There was a murderous wind raging through the streets of Munich when I went to work that night. It was one of those cold, dry Bavarian winds that blow up from the Alps with an edge like a new razor blade and make you wish you lived somewhere warmer, or owned a better overcoat, or at least had a job that didn't require you to hit the clock at six p.m. I'd pulled enough late shifts when I'd been a cop with the Murder Commission in Berlin so I should have been used to bluish fingers and cold feet, not to mention lack of sleep and the crappy pay. On such nights a busy city hospital is no place for a man to find himself doomed to work as a porter right through until dawn. He should be sitting by the fire in a cozy beer hall with a foaming mug of white beer in front of him, while his woman waits at home, a picture of connubial fidelity, weaving a shroud and plotting to sweeten his coffee with something a little more lethal than an extra spoonful of sugar.

Of course, when I say I was a night porter, it would have been more accurate to say that I was a mortuary attendant, but being a night porter sounds better when you're having a polite conversation. "Mortuary attendant" makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable. The living ones, mostly. But when you've seen as many corpses as I have you tend not to bat an eyelid about being around death so much. You can handle any amount of it after four years in the Flanders slaughterhouse. Besides, it was a job and with jobs as scarce as they are these days you don't look a gift horse in the mouth, even the spavined nag that had been bought for me, sight unseen, outside the doors of the local glue factory by the old comrades in Paderborn; they got me the job in the hospital after they had given me a new identity and fifty marks. So until I could find myself something better, I was stuck with it and my customers were stuck with me. I certainly didn't hear any of them complaining about my bedside manner.

You'd think the dead could look after themselves but of course people die in hospital all the time and, when they do, they usually need a bit of help getting around. It seems the days of patient defenestration are over. It was my job to go and fetch the bodies off the wards and take them down to the house of death and there to wash them before leaving them out for collection by the undertakers. In winter we didn't worry about chilling the bodies or spraying the place for flies. We didn't have to; it was just a few degrees above freezing in the mortuary. Much of the time I worked alone and, after a month at the Schwabing Hospital, I suppose I was almost used to it-to the cold, to the smell, and to the feeling of being alone and yet not quite alone, if you know what I mean. Once or twice a corpse moved by itself-they do that sometimes, wind usually-which, I'll admit, was a little unnerving. But perhaps not surprising. I'd been alone for so long that I'd started talking to the radio. At least I assumed that's where the voices were coming from. In the country that produced Luther, Nietzsche, and Adolf Hitler, you can never be absolutely sure about these things.

On that particular night I had to go up to the emergency room and fetch a corpse that would have given Dante pause for thought. An unexploded bomb-it's estimated that there are tens of thousands of these buried all over Munich, which often makes reconstruction work hazardous-had gone off in nearby Moosach, killing at least one and injuring several others in a local beer hall that took the worst of the blast. I heard it go off just before I started my shift and it sounded like a standing ovation in Asgard. If the glass in the window in my room hadn't already been Scotch-taped against drafts it would certainly have shattered. So no real harm done. What's one more German killed by a bomb from an American flying fortress after all these years?

The dead man looked like he'd been given a front row seat in some reserved circle of hell where he'd been chewed up by a very angry Minotaur before being torn to pieces. His jiving days were over, given that his legs were hanging off at the knees and he was badly burned, too; his corpse gave off a lightly barbecued smell that was all the more horrifying because somehow it was also, vaguely and inexplicably, appetizing. Only his shoes remained undamaged; everything else-clothes, skin, hair-was a sight. I washed him carefully-his torso was a pi–ata of glass and metal splinters-and did my very best to fix him up a bit. I put his still shiny Salamanders in a shoe box, just in case someone from the deceased's family turned up to identify the poor devil. You can tell a lot from a pair of shoes but this couldn't have been a more hopeless task if he'd spent the last twelve days being dragged through the dust behind someone's favorite chariot. Most of his face resembled a half kilo of freshly chopped dog meat and sudden death looked like it had done the guy a favor, not that I'd ever have said as much. Mercy killing is still a sensitive subject on a long list of sensitive subjects in modern Germany.

It's small wonder there are so many ghosts in this town. Some people go their whole lives without ever seeing a ghost; me, I see them all the time. Ghosts I sort of recognize, too. Twelve years after the war it was like living in Frankenstein Castle and every time I looked around I seemed to see a pensive, plaintive face I half-remembered from before. Quite often these looked like old comrades, but just now and again they resembled my poor mother. I miss her a lot. Sometimes the other ghosts mistook me for a ghost, which was hardly surprising, either; it's only my name that's changed, not my face, more's the pity. Besides, my heart was playing up a bit, like a difficult child, except that it wasn't so young as that. Every so often it would jump around for the sheer hell of it, as if to show me that it could and what might happen to me if it ever decided to have a break from taking care of a tiresome Fritz like me.

After I got home at the end of my shift I was extra-careful to turn the gas off on my little two-ring cooker after I'd finished boiling water for the coffee I usually had with my early-morning schnapps. Gas is just as explosive as TNT, even the splutteringly thin stuff that comes squeaking out of German pipes. Outside my dingy yellow window was an eighty-foot-high heap of overgrown rubble, another legacy of the wartime bombing: seventy percent of the buildings in Schwabing had been destroyed, which was good for me, as it made rooms there cheap to rent. Mine was in a building scheduled for demolition and had a long crack in the wall so wide you could have hidden an ancient desert city in there. But I liked the rubble heap. It served to remind me of what, until recently, my life had amounted to. I even liked the fact that there was a local guide who would take visitors to the summit of the heap, as part of his advertised Munich tour. There was a memorial cross on top and a nice view of the city. You had to admire the fellow's ingenuity. When I was a boy I used to climb to the top of Berlin's cathedral-all 264 steps-and walk around the dome's perimeter with only the pigeons for company; but it hadn't ever occurred to me to make a career out of it.

I never liked Munich all that much, with its fondness for traditional Tracht clothes and jolly brass bands, devout Roman Catholicism and the Nazis. Berlin suited me better and not just because it was my hometown. Munich was always a more compliant, governable, conservative place than the old Prussian capital. I got to know it best in the early years after the war, when my second wife, Kirsten, and I were trying to run an unfeasibly located hotel in a suburb of Munich called Dachau, now infamous for the concentration camp the Nazis had there; I didn't like it any better then, either. Kirsten died, which hardly helped, and soon after that I left, thinking never to return and well, here I am again, with no real plans for the future, at least none that I would ever talk about, just in case God's listening. I don't find he's nearly as merciful as a lot of Bavarians like to make out. Especially on a Sunday evening. And certainly not after Dachau. But I was here and trying to be optimistic even though there was absolutely no room for such a thing-not in my cramped lodgings-and doing my best to look on the bright side of life even though it felt as if this lay over the top of a very high barbed-wire fence.

For all that, I took a certain amount of satisfaction in doing what I did for a living; clearing up shit and washing corpses seemed like a suitable penance for what I'd done before. I was a cop, not a proper cop, but a useful stooge in the SD for the likes of Heydrich, Nebe, and Goebbels. It wasn't even a proper penance like the one undertaken by the old German king Henry IV, who famously walked on his knees to Canossa Castle to obtain the Pope's forgiveness, but perhaps it would do. Besides, like my heart, my knees are not what they once were. In small ways, like Germany itself, I was trying to inch my way back to moral respectability. After all, it can hardly be denied that little by little can take you a long way, even when you're on your knees.

In truth, that process was working out for Germany a little better than it was working out for me, and all thanks to the Old Man. This was what we called Konrad Adenauer, on account of how he was seventy-three when he became West Germany's first postwar chancellor. He was still in power at eighty-one, leading the Christian Democrats and, unless you were a radical Jewish group like Irgun, who'd tried to assassinate the Old Man on more than one occasion, it had to be admitted he'd made a pretty good job of it, too. Already people were talking about "the Miracle on the Rhine" and they weren't referring to Saint Alban of Mainz. Thanks to a combination of the Marshall Plan, low inflation, rapid industrial growth, and plain hard work, Germany was now doing better economically than England. This didn't surprise me that much; the Tommies always were too bolshy for their own good. After winning two world wars they made the mistake of thinking the world owed them a living. Perhaps the real miracle was how the rest of the world seemed to have forgiven Germany for starting a war that had cost the lives of forty million people-this in spite of the Old Man having denounced the whole denazification process and brought in an amnesty law for our war criminals, all of which certainly explained why there was a lingering and general suspicion that many old Nazis were now back in government. The Old Man had a useful explanation for that, too: he said you needed to make sure you had a good supply of clean water available before you threw out your dirty water.

As someone who washed dead Germans for a living, I couldn't disagree with this.

Of course, I had more dirty water in my bucket than most and above all else I was appreciating my newfound obscurity. Like Garbo in Grand Hotel, I just wanted to be alone and loved the idea of being anonymous more than I liked the short beard I'd grown to help make this work. The beard was yellowish gray, vaguely metallic; it made me look wiser than I am. Our lives are shaped by the choices we make, of course, and more noticeably by the choices that were wrong. But the idea that I had been forgotten by the cops, not to mention the world's major security and intelligence agencies, was pleasing, to say the least. My life looked good on paper; indeed it was the only place it looked as if it had been well spent, which, speaking as someone who'd been a cop for many years, was in itself suspicious. And so, to facilitate my life as Christof Ganz, in my spare time I would often go back over the bare facts of his life and invent some of the things he'd done and achieved. Places I'd been, jobs I'd had, and, most important of all, my wartime service on behalf of the Third Reich. In much the same way that everyone else had done in the new Germany. Yes, we've all had to become very creative with our rŽsumŽs. Including, it seemed, many members of the Christian Democrats.

I took another drink with my breakfast, just to help me sleep, of course, and went to bed, where I dreamed of happier times, although that might just as easily have been a prayer to the god of the black cloud, dwelling in the skies. Since prayers are never answered it's hard to tell the difference.


When I went into work the following evening the Moosach bomb victim was still there, laid out on the slab like a vulture's abandoned banquet. Someone had tied a name tag to his toe which, given the fact that his leg was no longer attached to his body, seemed imprudent to say the least. His name was Johann Bernbach, and he was just twenty-five years old. By now I knew a little more about the bomb from what was in the SŸddeutsche Zeitung. A five-hundred-pounder had exploded on a building site next door to a beer hall in Dachauerstrasse, less than fifty meters from the municipal gasworks. The gasometer contained over seven million cubic feet of gas, so the feeling expressed in the newspaper was that the city had had a lucky escape with just two people killed and six injured and I said as much to Bernbach when I saw him.