Both U.S. critics and the British public seem to love Philip Kerr, but I can’t quite figure out why. Oh, Kerr’s good, all right. I can understand why they like him. It’s just that love seems a little over the top.
Kerr’s plotting is complex and full of tension and ultimate surprise, and his characters ring true, for the most part. But The One from the Other, one in a longish series of novels featuring a World War II-era German detective named Bernie Gunther, is written in a wise-guy style reminiscent of early American detective stories. And it’s not just in the snappy, clever dialogue — I can go for snappy dialogue as well as the next reader — but in Gunther’s inner narrative. The result is a book that’s alternately funny and forced.
The One from the Other (Bernie Gunther #4) by Philip Kerr @@@ @ (4 out of 5)
For example, here’s how Bernie describes his meeting with one incidental character: “Frau Klingerhoffer . . . was working on a leg of lamb like a mechanic going after a set of rusty spark plugs with a wrench and a rubber hammer. She didn’t stop eating for a moment. Not even when I bowed and said hello. She probably wouldn’t have stopped if the lamb had let out a bleat and inquired where Mary was.”
Cute, eh? So’s this: “There was something in his face I didn’t like. Mostly it was just his face.”
But this stuff is non-stop in The One from the Other. There are paragraphs in which Kerr uses as many as four similes and metaphors to describe a character or a scene. It gets a little old.
Admittedly, though, the overdone style is just one aspect of this otherwise strong detective novel. Some of those who write about Kerr’s Bernie Gunther stories comment favorably on the nuanced, in-depth portrait he paints of Germany and the Germans under Nazism. Gunther himself, though no Nazi — in fact, too outspokenly anti-Nazi for his own good — was a member of the SS, having been detailed to the service because of his experience as a police detective in pre-war Berlin. His introspection about his own record in the war, and his interaction with other Germans, in The One from the Other brings to light the evasions and denials and downright lies that so many hid behind once Germany lost the war. And Kerr’s depiction of odious war criminals, including Adolf Eichmann, who figures as a significant character in this book, is fascinating in its depth.
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