A DARK shadow hangs mournfully over this novel. Bernie Gunther, one-time Berlin cop, one-time intimate of Nazi leaders, walks through the valley of death for the 13th time in a series of novels that have charted his life as private eye, public policeman, prisoner of war, concierge and now mortuary attendant.

That last post was surely a mischievous fancy from Kerr, a darkly comic Scot, who died shortly before publication of the novel. ‘There’s nothing like a mortuary to remind you of the frailty of human flesh,’ observes Gunther.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Kerr, who died aged 62 from cancer, was writing these words with a deeply personal sentiment. Bernie, after all, quickly leaves his doleful employment to take up the more salubrious role of an insurance investigator.

It is as if Bernie and Kerr have nodded to death in an intimate setting then sought to know it better through a novel that does not shy away from major themes. Bernie has a history that includes more than a passing acquaintance with mass murder and genuine evil. The Gunter novels, based on solid research, know where the victims are buried. They also attempt, successfully and movingly, to hold the survivors to account.

There is thus much discussion of morality, mortality, philosophy, atonement and redemption. In Greeks Bearing Gifts, these themes are woven into a detective story that moves from the plot of Double Indemnity to that of sunken treasure.

These well-used plot lines are not Kerr succumbing to any laziness but a subtle method of leading the reader to what is important. Who cares if a greedy couple want to defraud an insurance company? Who cares how much gold is lying in the waters off the coast of Greece?

Kerr supplies a neat and chilling resolution to these storylines but it is Bernie and the world he inhabits that provide the profundity. There are two layers. The first is Kerr’s attempt to look at the past and its effect on the future. Thus the formation of the European Economic Community is a major political theme of the book, supporting the cliché that while Germany lost the war it won the peace.

Similarly, the outrageously lenient treatment of war criminals is highlighted regularly and strongly. The realpolitik of Germany and the Allies was to maintain a viable economy and a non-communist political system. They succeeded in both aims with justice the only victim.

The second layer is personified by Bernie Gunther. The novels flick back and forth over time and this one is set in 1957 more than 20 years from the first, March Violets. The locations have switched over the years from Berlin to Russia to Dachau and now to Munich and Greece. But Bernie remains a constant.

There is a temptation, rarely resisted by some critics, to rate the Gunther novels on the strength of their plots. But the fascination, even importance of this series is the effect of evil on one man. Bernie is regularly described as the Good German, that is, one who was not complicit in the enormities of the Second World War. This is false. The truth is much more interesting.

Bernie Gunther is misogynist, often callous and a regular killer. He is, perhaps above all, a survivor but one who knows that this is not always for the best. He has seen the worst and it colours his outlook.

He remarks at one point of an adversary in Greeks Bearing Gifts: ‘If he was a character in a book you wouldn’t believe him possible.’ Yet Bernie, despite the improbable range of his activities, remains deeply authentic.

His cynicism is forgivable, his repressed anger understandable. His guilt, too, is natural. Bernie Gunther, or whatever alias he adopts to obstruct pursuers from his past, has committed grave sins. He retains just a ‘smidgeon’ of belief in God and he has direct knowledge of the power of conscience. He is starkly honest about his role in the greatest crimes of humanity, accepting that this sincerity does not exonerate him.

Yet he continues to exist, strives to do something of good. His persistence, the goodness of his intentions make him human in a world populated by monsters. Bernie, after all was close enough to the SS to have been marked physically by blood group tattoo, mandatory for members, and scarred psychically by what he has seen and, crucially, what he did and what he failed to do.

Greeks Bearing Gifts sees him stumbling into late middle-age, unable to maintain a relationship with a beautiful woman, unable to sustain a friendship from the past or nurture an acquaintance in the present.

Bernie Gunther is a man alone but one who articulates concerns that resonate beyond his times. His greatest trait may be his power to endure. He is a softly spoken, shambling testifier to the human power of resilience. He is also bitterly, darkly funny. It is, after all, the only response to death.

It is a characteristic that is shared by his creator. Kerr has died but Bernie Gunther lives on. The author was correcting the proof copies of a 14th Gunther novel when he succumbed to his illness. It will be published next year. In a series of unrelenting intrigue, the last word will come from beyond the grave.

Greeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr is published by Quercus £18.99