Friday, March 23, 2007

Literature: The One from the Other by Philip Kerr

There is a certain beauty and fortune in rushing into a library to return a book and deciding to check out another to read while one’s son is practicing soccer. Such was the case with my discovery of Philip Kerr’s The One fro the Other. In reading this, the latest of Kerr’s ongoing saga of the German private investigator Bernard Gunther, I realize I have entered a story that takes place in 1949, but began many years before, before World War II and before its aftermath, with Kerr’s “Berlin Trilogy” which is made up of his novels, March Violets (1989), The Pale Criminal (1990), and A German Requiem (1991). Gratefully, I did not suffer from having not read these earlier books and The One fro the Other is quite self contained.

The book’s title is derived from a quote attributed to German Lutheran theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, that would eventually transmogrify into the ubiquitous “Serenity Prayer” — “…and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” This prayer is important when considering that Gunther is returning to private investigation after several years of running, Kristen’s, his ailing wife, hotel in Dachau. It is four years after VE day and Gunther and Kristen move from Munich to Dachau to help her father run his hotel. In the wake of the end of the war and war crime trials, Kristen’s father commits suicide and Kristen is institutionalized, catatonically paralyzed by schizophrenia. Gunther decides to sell the hotel, borrow some money and return to the only thing he knows, investigative work. Prior to the war, Gunther had been a member of the civilian police. Never a member of the Nazi party, he always managed to stay on the outside of that unpleasantness, enabling himself to condemn National Socialism while still celebrating Germany. A member of Berlin’s KRIPO (Kriminalpolizei) in prewar era, Gunther was obliged to become a member of the notorious SS, a fact that haunts the investigator.

The One from the Other focuses on a series of missing-Nazi cases Gunther accepts as he renews his private investigator’s license. In a dizzying series of seemingly unrelated scenes the circumstances clear somewhat when Gunther is savagely assaulted, has his little finger traumatically removed, and subsequently convalesces at mysterious private estate to recover, with equally mysterious caretakers. Gunther, almost unwittingly, becomes a pawn in a medical experimentation conspiracy involving Germans, Jews, and a lot of money. Kerr creates an intriguing picture of postwar occupied German. The picture is of a gritty reconstruction where the Classical world abounds in both temporal reality, speech, thought, and expression. While Kerr employs much of the mechanical methodology of Noir specialists Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, he gratefully casts the hard-boiled language of Gunther in Germany. This alone makes the Bernie Gunther novels delightfully refreshing.

In the end, the 15 years that separate the Bernie Gunther of A German Requiem and The One from the Other reveal a very measured consideration by Kerr of how the properly age his protagonist without emasculating him. The Gunther of the Berlin Triology just becomes more like himself in The One from the Other, a supremely nationalist German without the National Socialist pretense. Gunther is a German everyman trying to get by with his German rectitude under the most adverse circumstances. The One from the Other ends in a plot spoiler not to be revealed here, of heartbreak for Gunther and the hope for the next Bernie Gunther novel.

This review was first published in

© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2007