I bought this book in May in Berlin and although the novel is set mainly in Munich, it seemed quite appropriate for me to buy a Kerr novel there. Let me tell you about this first.
I read his Berlin Noir trilogy a good fifteen years ago (back when no internet existed to record my reading) and I was so impressed that it “colored” my mental vision of the city (other preconceptions I had about Berlin came from Christopher Isherwood and the movie Cabaret, and Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz). So of course my first days in the German capital were all about trying to reconcile my own private historical and fictional idea of the city with its actual contemporary life, its cafés and shops, throngs of tourists and dwellers. Not so easy. The few first days I was really unsettled and found the city surprisingly uptight (not so surprising when you think of Germany in general, but more surprising when you hear Berlin’s reputation of laidback cool), but the third day I realized that I was the one being uptight, and so I relaxed and enjoyed it a lot more. Of course, Berlin is a lot less “noir” and a lot more fun in life than in fiction.
Coming back to Kerr, I guess my impression of his trilogy has been quite memorable to me because he managed to show how life went on under Nazi rule, using fiction, without a focus on Jewish persecutions and/or the war itself. He didn’t hide these facts or minimize them but on the contrary inserted them in ordinary life. As a matter of fact a lot of people if they weren’t Jewish or Communist did get on with it as if nothing much happened. Crime still occurred under Nazi regime for the usual motives of money, jealousy, revenge. It made the persecutions and terror more real and more disturbing by showing them in life ordinariness, as lawlessness and arbitrary disturbed the logical flow of a traditional investigation.
The One from the Other is set in 1949 while Germany is busy rebuilding itself and trying to face its not-so-distant past… or not. Cities are still in ruins but already construction sites show a promising future. A lot of people are ready to turn the page and forget. A lot of people are still unaccounted for, Jews of course but also war criminals who have gone into hiding to escape American war tribunals, Soviet summary justice or Israeli execution squads. There are opportunities to start anew, for bad guys and good guys alike.
A private detective like Bernie Gunther, freshly widowed and a survivor of the war, gets a good deal of business opportunities in this context. He’s a cynical big mouth à la Marlowe, always getting in murky situations where there’s much to lose and little to gain. He’s definitely a good, moral guy, but he has his share of ambiguities. He has grown since we last heard of him in the trilogy and his recent past in the war has taken its toll.
When he sets up shop in Munich, there’s no shortage of clients, but asking questions is dangerous in post-war Germany. Soon enough he’s embarked into a complicated plot that put his life at risk. Germans are seen by many as expendable in the new Cold War, and some Americans are not looking twice when it comes to choosing between ex-Nazis and Communists. Few people are who they present themselves. The numerous twists and turns guarantees a breathless pace and a riveting tension, all the more when Kerr peppers it with a lot of research and details.
The only drawback to reading such a book is that it puts you in a melancholy, slightly paranoid mood. Noir mysteries are like a good coffee: strong, dark, bitter with a long aftertaste. And it gives you a good jolt.