The One from the Other by Philip Kerr

The One from the Other by Philip Kerr takes place after the events in his Berlin Trilogy, the war is over and Bernie Gunther is trying, and failing, to run a hotel near Dachau. His wife has succumbed to madness, shut away in a hospital. An American intelligence officer brings a former Nazi guard by the hotel to dig up a box of valuables stolen from prisoners at the camp. This ends up entangling Gunther in a twisting, violent plot that organically switches direction several times throughout the book. Once the pieces fall into place, it seems impossible to have missed where it was going, but Kerr somehow pulls it off, letting us figure it out along with Bernie, becoming more and more amazed at the manipulations needed to pull it off.

I’m in a rush, and even if I weren’t, I can’t do justice to just how good this book is, on so many levels. The plotting is a lesson in itself, levels and levels, building on each other, no detail wasted. And Kerr’s language, oh wow, the way the man can put a sentence together is a thing to be marveled at. Take this passage:

And if that didn’t pan out, I would head to the Hofbrauhaus with my English dictionary and a packet of cigarettes and spend the evening with a nice brunette. Several brunettes probably- the silent kind, with nice creamy heads and not a hard-luck story between them, all lined up along a bartop.

Books I own, I mark passages I like and then turn down the bottom corner so I can find them again later. I got this book from the library, but there are still several pages turned down at the bottom corner, places to flip back to before I have to give it back to the library.

“Funny thing about forgiveness,” I said. “Someone has to look and act like they’re sorry for there to be any chance of real forgiveness.”

He couldn’t have been more than five feet tall and yet he had the look of a creature that killed weasels with his teeth. It was as if his mother had prayed for a baby terrier and changed her mind at the last minute.

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” I said. “That’s my advice.”
“It’s bad advice, Herr Gunther,” she said. “Think about it. All those veterinary bills if the nag is no good. And let’s not forget what happened to those dumb Trojans. Maybe if they had listened to Cassandra instead of Sinon they might have done just that. If they’d looked the Greek gift horse in the mouth they would have seen Odysseus and all his Greek friends huddled inside.” She smiled. “Benefits of a classical education.”

It was something I had learned as an intelligence officer during the war: The essence of deception is not the lie that’s told but the truths that are told to support it.

That last one’s just good advice, all around. Kerr has a gift for description, he can put a few words together in a way you’d never imagine and a character or place or moment flies off the page, alive and kicking. He’s also able to work what must be massive amounts of research and background seamlessly into a story, teaching you things your teachers never mentioned, making it more real than they ever could. Without ever feeling like you’re being lectured. Be warned, the violence in this one gets very nasty, bones crunching, technicolor bruises. And the references to the Soviet troops raping their way across Germany will make your stomach turn. We’re so used to the high school history class black and white of WWII, we were the good guys, the Germans the ultimate bad guys. Kerr doesn’t dispute that, but he gives voice to individual stories of what it was like to be German at that time, in that place. In his books, good and bad are turned on their heads.

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July 29, 2010. Tags: . Books.

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