- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 16, 2006


By Philip Kerr

Putnam, $26.95, 371 pages


Once again Philip Kerr, a matchless master at evoking earlier periods, is back with a novel set in the 1940s, as was his previous outing, last year’s “Hitler’s Peace.” Even more welcome news is that he has brought back, after a 15-year absence, Bernie Gunther, the hard-boiled, world-weary German private eye hero of his much-acclaimed Berlin Noir trilogy.

No novelist “gets” Germany and Europe before, during and after World War II as well as Mr. Kerr, not even Alan Furst. It is not that he captures the feel of the times so convincingly through dropping names, places and things, but that he drops them in not obvious but in ingenious ways.

But something is going on in “The One From the Other” that goes beyond the World War II era and the book’s plot. In a prologue set in 1937, Bernie travels to Palestine on an assignment from a corrupt Nazi official, accompanied, coincidentally, by a young Adolf Eichmann, just beginning to make his way up the Nazi hierarchy.

This extended prologue has less to do with 1937, or with 1949, the year in which the book proper begins, than with the year 2001 — specifically, September 11. In Palestine Bernie encounters the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin (an actual personage), an anti-Semite who could have given lessons in hatred to Adolf Hitler (and quite possibly did).

“All Jews, everywhere, must be killed,” the mufti says, simply, prefiguring the Final Solution. He hates Jews because they bring the modern West to the backward Middle East, thereby despoiling the perfect paradise of poverty, religious intolerance, oppression of women, suppression of free thought, bloodthirstiness and all-around authoritarianism that it took centuries of isolation to build up.

It is, in short, a barely disguised blast against Islamofascism, Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic triumphalism. While this may be editorializing about today’s global dangers paralleling those of Bernie’s times, it is quite fitting for an author whose protagonist is anti-fascist and anti-totalitarian with every fiber of his being. Besides, what happens in Palestine in 1937 has to do with what comes after, in 1949.

By that year Bernie is in his early 50s and running a failing hotel in Dachau. When his wife dies, he decides to return to his earlier trade, this time not in Berlin, but Munich.

His first PI cases, involving missing persons (a wide-open field in postwar Europe), lead him inexorably into a web, less impenetrable than in most thrillers, spun by a treacherous CIA operative; Nazi doctors who did, and are still doing, lethal experiments on humans; and agents of Nakam, the Jewish vengeance brigades.

As the plot spirals ever more tightly, Bernie finds himself in a double bind: pursued by the Nakam, who believe he is one of the Nazi doctors, and caught in a kind of deadly blackmail by the doctors themselves. Bernie has been played for a fool by those he had trusted, and that makes him angry, especially when he learns that his wife was one of their victims.

There seems to be little of which Mr. Kerr is not in command — noirish turns of phrase (“His teeth were big and yellow, as if he usually ate grass for dinner”), pacing, atmosphere, story and historical facts and events.

It is neat to witness Bernie wisecracking a la Philip Marlowe within the constraints of the Nazi totalitarian state, and when he interviews a beautiful, leggy female client — the femme fatale who sets him on his dangerous course — he is very much Marlowe, and every other woman-scrutinizing PI.

On the run, Bernie knows he will have to leave Germany if he is to save his hide from those who would nail it to various ideological walls (including the CIA’s). He runs straight into the arms of a network run by Roman Catholic priests helping Nazis escape Germany, where he meets up with Eichmann again.

It does not spoil the intervening story to reveal that at the end, in 1950, Bernie sets sail for Argentina almost arm in arm with Eichmann. “Like it or not, I was the old Germany … The more I read about the new Republic, the more I looked forward to a simpler life in a warmer climate.”

But this is not Bogie and Claude Rains heading off for what looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship. We know what eventually happens to Eichmann, and can speculate that in a hoped-for future volume we may learn that Bernie, with his lengthening list of scores to keep, had something to do with it.

Roger K. Miller, a former newspaper book review editor, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.



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