Monday, 12 December 2011

The One from the Other by Philip Kerr


NOT a Nazi. Got it.

Philip Kerr is an author I have been reluctant to attempt to review for some time. His Berlin Noir trilogy cost me some hours of sleeplessness and in the end I decided to skip a review and just be happy to have read it and therefore move it from the pile of unread novels, via the edge of my desk where the “to review” pile occasionally falls over on to the typewriter and spills my pen pot across the floor and thus causes significant risks when stumbling blindly about the room at night too drunk to remember where my bed is or having just been jolted awake by the boy shrieking from the next room and running asleep into walls and doors, to the back half of my giant Ikea bookcase where novels that have been read and have caused my self-esteem to shatter on the diamond-hard edges of someone else’s talent currently reside, gathering dust and moisture until hitting the mildew tipping point and becoming physically dangerous in their own right. This awesome crew consists mainly of Will Self, John Barth, Kurt Vonnegut, Percival Everett, Mark Twain, Ismail Kadare and Bohumil Hrabal, but is not strictly limited to such esteemed company. Other noteworthy residents include Carlton Mellick III, John Connolly, Michael Marshall Smith, Dan Rhodes, Viktor Pelevin etc etc.  

You see? As you, my learned reader(s) will quickly divine, my problem is obvious. Such displacement activity as listing some of my favourite authors is indicative of a degree of trepidation about adding my critical and (I fear) ill-qualified opinion on the author(s) in question to the general melee of criticism already thrashing about on the web. What could I say that hasn’t been said before? Usually, in a self-deprecating article such as this I would now list what I thought about the book to check them against what has already been said, e.g. Chandler-esque, story-driven, enthralling and appalling and so on etc, with some witty quip or snide remark to position myself as above such obvious chicanery. 

A pink elephant. Reproduced from
 
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/5344770.stm
without the kind permission of the
BBC or Banksy. Sorry.

None of which is currently getting to the bottom of just how I feel about this book. So, some salient fact at this point might serve to help. Firstly, the back story: what bigger crime to provide the backdrop for a series of crime thrillers than the biggest crime of the 20th (and possibly 19th, 18th, 17th...) centuries? You can’t fault Kerr, a man who claims to have watched “every Nazi documentary there's ever been”, for taking what is often a scarily huge elephant in the room and painting him thriller-pink. 
Gunther’s story is so closely intertwined with the rise and fall of the Third Reich that, as the title suggests, borrowed as it is from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer*, Gunther is drawn unwillingly into the gears of the death machine and is spit out onto a ferry bound for Argentina with none other than Adolf Eichmann. Not a Nazi** himself (he takes great pains to point out he was never a party member, never carried a card, and only met with the Nazi top brass so he wouldn’t get shot), Gunther makes a living as a PI on the streets of a Berlin in the grip, and in the aftermath, of history’s greatest monster. How’s the writing? Chandler-esque would be close, Hammett-esque similarly accurate, but altogether, judging by the way Kerr himself is portrayed in the obliquely aforementioned Scotsman.com article from February 29th 2008, a lot like Philip Kerr – curmudgeonly, gruff, straight talking and probably in over his head. None of that stops him from unravelling in this case an atrocious medical experiment covered up by a variety of non-Nazi parties. 

It’s truly gripping stuff. Really. I can’t lavish enough praise thereupon, despite the series of frankly ludicrous coincidences that one is expected to overlook in the mad thrill of the narrative chase. Kerr excels in this milieu (I can’t honestly say I can compare his children’s fiction or other writing for that matter) and at a healthy and stately 55 years of age, let us hope that he is around long enough to leave behind a legacy of truly superb crime fiction.


* The first recorded version goes something like this: "Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other."

** For some interesting information on the origin of the nickname “Nazi”, see The Etymologicon, by Mark Forsyth, aka the Inkyfool. Free preview at http://blog.inkyfool.com/

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