Book Review: The One from the Other (Philip Kerr)

The One from the Other

2006

Philip Kerr

Detective work is a little like walking into a movie that’s already started. You don’t know what’s happened already and, as you try to find your way in the dark, it’s inevitable that you’re going to stand on someone’s toes…”

Fifteen years after releasing A German Requiem (reviewed here), in 2006 Philip Kerr returned to the ‘Berlin Noir’ series of novels featuring German gumshoe Bernie Gunther, the hardboiled detective reluctantly investigating the underbelly of the Nazi era. Dismissing any concerns which a fifteen year gap may bring, The One from the Other continues the series’ explorations into the underbelly of history’s darkest era. Critically, it proved a triumphant return to the series which, in this reader’s view, exceeds the high standards set by the entries before it, and marked a successful beginning of a ‘second era’ of the series which has continued on a pretty much annual basis since its release.

Stylistically and thematically, the book continues in the same vein as its three predecessors. The book opens with a lengthy prologue detailing an assignment given to Gunther in 1936 by a SS officer to visit Palestine and oversee the operations of two Nazi officials, who are engaged in various talks with local Jewish leaders to discuss the forced removal of all German Jews to Palestine. This is followed by a visit to the Muslim authorities, and the discussion of ‘alternative’ methods of handling Germany’s ‘Jewish problem.’ The prologue is not central to the remainder of the book, aside from the presence of one rather notable character who returns later, but it is an interesting piece in its own right and suitably sets the pace and atmosphere for the story to come.

Following on from this, the story jumps ahead to 1949, two years after the events of A German Requiem. The two years haven’t been good to Gunther. No longer a detective, he’s now running a derelict hotel in Dachau bequeathed to him by his late father in law. Business is bad and, to make things worse, his wife is hospitalised – mentally broken by the death of her father. One day, an American solider shows up with a German hostage in tow. The American, Major Jacobs, claims his companion buried a wealth of jewels and goods in what is now the hotel’s gardens – artefacts stolen from the prisoners of the Dachau concentration camp. Gunther doesn’t mind – not when you consider the Americans are now in charge.

The results of this leave Gunther to decide to sell the hotel and return to his former life as a detective. Even four years after the war, there is still plenty of business for a detective to have. His initial jobs are fairly routine – usually tracing down people and evidence to help get imprisoned Nazis reduced sentences. In the midst of this, his wife finally dies in hospital. Broken and distraught, Gunther finds himself visited by a new client – a female, one formerly married to a man who ran one of the most notorious concentration camps of them all. Her husband disappeared after the war, and she’s looking to remarry. To do this, she needs confirmation her former husband is dead, and sets Gunther on the case.

With his routine efficiency, Gunther finds the information he needs. But not without stepping on the toes of Germany’s remaining underground organisations. For his troubles, Gunther is kidnapped, tortured and warned off of the case. Left to recover with a pair of medical professionals, Gunther’s investigations continue and he delves into the hidden circles of Germany’s remaining Nazis, and their attempts to escape from persecution, hoping to find redemption in the lands of Argentina and America. He eventually finds himself the victim of an elaborate criminal conspiracy, forced to take the identity of a wanted Nazi after a carefully crafted set up leaves Bernie Gunther a wanted man for a pair of murders. Gunther does manage to crack his case, but not without expense, and he is forced to flee the world of war-torn Europe and join his fellow fleeing Germans to a new life in Argentina.

“‘If you ask me, the whole reformation can be blamed on strong beer’ he opined. ‘Wine is a perfect Catholic drink. It makes people sleepy and complicit. Beer just makes them argumentative. And look at the countries that drink a lot of beer. They’re mainly Protestant. And the countries where they drink a lot of wine? Roman Catholic.’

‘And what about the Russians?’ I asked. ‘They drink vodka.’

‘That’s a drink to help you find oblivion,’ said Father Bandolini, ‘nothing to do with God at all.’”

It’s not strictly necessary to have read the previous entries to appreciate this one, but ,as is usually the case with a series, it is best to read them ‘in order’ so to pick up the minor references scattered within which refer back to Gunther’s previous outings – in particular, A German Requiem and his marriage with Kirsten.

The book continues its immediate predecessor’s themes of guilt and redemption, with Germany and Austria gradually rebuilding themselves from the ashes of the war . The setting isn’t quite as desolate or menacing as that of A German Requiem, and the looming shadow of the Cold War is less prominent within the context of the plot. Instead, the plot centres around the role of the remaining Nazis, as well as the attempts of the German people to overcome their dark past. Whereas with A German Requiem, it is the occupying Russians (‘Ivans’) who were under the spotlight, being portrayed as almost feral invaders, in The One from the Other, the focus moves to role of the Americans, who are portrayed as corrupt and having been spoiled by victory. That said, Gunther himself is not much of a shining knight either, and he knows it. He handles his role in effectively cleaning up the pasts of Nazis with a reluctant acceptance – detective work is the only work he knows, and it’s the only work he’s good at. His character faces some unexpected challenges as the book goes on, although the early death of his wife does leave us feeling a little short-changed, given the potential for character development on Gunther’s part, however her relatively minor involvement in the series means it is not a huge blow, and the revelations surrounding her death as the plot unfolds does make it appear justifiable, if sudden.

Of the first four books in the series, The One from the Other was the longest (though that record has now been overtaken), but I found it to be the most engaging entry of the series thus far, thanks in large to the detailed plot and genuinely unexpected turns the story took. The resolution of the mystery is much less neatly tied up than usual, although it is true to say that some of the more intricate plot points are a bit overly elaborate to, but the story leaves points open to be explored in future works. And whilst the final scenes of the story are bittersweet in how they unfold, for once Gunther is left with a chance of a new life, free from his own dark past.

As with the books before it, The One from the Other is a dark story, and doesn’t spare on the stark, brutal details when needed – Gunther’s torture scene is particularly powerful in this regard. The dialogue retains all the hardboiled elements and ruthless witticisms that Kerr writes so well. The level of Kerr’s research comes through clearly, in the detailed descriptions of the cities Gunther inhabits.

Returning to a series fifteen years after wrapping up the previous instalment was quite a gamble. But Kerr pulled it off admirably with The One from the Other, picking up where its predecessors left off whilst opening up new themes and plots for the series to move into. Critically, it stands up as a seamless return for the character of Bernie Gunther, who has lost none of his appeal in his fifteen year absence.

Next up: A Quiet Flame.

 

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