Rowland Bismark's Reviews > The One from the Other

The One from the Other by Philip Kerr
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Aug 02, 2010

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Philip Kerr began his writing-career with three impressive novels about German policeman and private investigator Bernie Gunther set around World War II. Then came the intriguing A Philosophical Investigation, but after that he went (or tried to go) commercial, with largely unfortunate and forgettable results. Turning back to Bernie Gunther is a calculated risk, but certainly the re-appearance of this character is more welcome than anything else Kerr might have turned to.

A long Prologue set in 1937 has Bernie travel to Palestine and Egypt with Nazis Adolf Eichmann and Herbert Hagen, strutting his usual stuff. Enjoyable enough, the reason for including episode only becomes clear near the conclusion of the book -- and, like a bit too much else in the novel, it's awfully convenient. Still, it's a good (re-)introduction to Bernie and his attitude -- especially towards the Nazis and the policies they are putting into place.

The novel proper then begins in 1949, where we find Bernie a hotel-owner in -- of all unfortunate places -- Dachau. His wife has pretty much lost her mind and is in hospital, and the business he's found himself in is not going well. The one guest who shows up is an American with a German handcuffed to his steering wheel, and who's not looking for a room.

Bernie decides to give up the hotelier life and do the one thing he's good at: he opens up shop as a P.I. in Munich. Kerr does a nice job of presenting post-war Germany, bombed out, arrogant Americans still in control, everyone -- except a privileged few -- making do as best they can in pretty miserable conditions. The cases that come Bernie's way are also pretty unpleasant, the Nazi-taint still muddying so many waters, but it gets interesting when one tall, good-looking woman, Britta Warzok, hires him to find her missing (nasty Nazi) husband Friedrich -- or, preferably, prove that he is dead. Her story is that she's an ultra-devout Catholic who wants to re-marry, and can't if her husband is still alive, and she's willing to pay Bernie a huge bonus if he can get definitive proof.

Looking for wanted Nazis who are on the run is dangerous business, as Bernie soon finds out, but in fact he's been drawn into something much bigger, the outlines of which only come into focus (for him) when he's in it up to his neck. "All clients are liars", he reminds himself after one meeting with Frau Warzok, but it turns out few of the people he deals with are exactly who they appear to be. Eventually, he does some new-found friends a favour, travelling to Vienna to help one of them out, and finds that many of the small coincidences (some of which he didn't recognise as such before) all turn out to have been part of a bigger plan, a trap in which he finds himself thoroughly ensnared.

Eventually, he finds himself on the run from pretty much everyone (except, ironically, the organisation that helps Nazis escape from Germany and Austria ...), but beside saving his own skin he's also out for vengeance (the reasons for which also increase as he digs deeper), making for even more complications and confrontations. It's all a bit too convenient, and there are quite a few too many coincidences (aside even from the ones that turn out not to have been so coincidental), but for the most part it's an entertaining and occasionally quite thrilling ride.

Kerr tries a bit too hard on occasion -- Bernie utters a few too many hard-boiled pearls of wisdom, and Kerr has an unfortunate penchant for listing street names, as if that somehow gave scenes a sense of more authenticity -- but he does get post-war Germany and Austria down pretty well, and Bernie is an agreeable enough companion for the story. Kerr plays up the moral ambiguities a bit too much, too, but the times certainly lend themselves to it, and he works most of it well enough into the novel.

Not quite plausible enough, The One from the Other is still a thoroughly enjoyable period-thriller, and the return of Bernie Gunther a very welcome one.
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