Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The One From The Other by Philip Kerr

Looking at the stacks of mystery titles in the airport, a friend of mine said, “I think they’ve solved ‘em all.” I couldn’t help but think that he was right, in some visceral way; no matter how convoluted the crime, no matter how unlikely the twist, few readers will be genuinely surprised by the mystery’s solution. Mystery writers, understanding this, seem to adopt one of three approaches. First: rely on the pleasure of formula and familiarity, presenting a heroic detective doggedly searching for the novel’s final page. Second: displace the genre’s conventions, placing the sleuth in unusual settings or situations. Third: treat the genre as literature of exhaustion, the detective’s drive for truth being no match for the problem of existenceNick Bredie, reviewing The Manual Of Detection by Jedidiah Berry.

Philip Kerr is an old hand at employing all three of these techniques, which he does with a well-oiled utility in The One From The Other (A). What Bredie fails to account for in his formulation of mystery writing is the most financially successful approach to the genre: exploration of a compelling personality and character. There are some series that will be successful for as long as the author is willing to contribute to them, just because a particular character has settled deeply into the public imagination. Sherlock Holmes is the first such detective that springs to mind. James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels are a contemporary example. So are Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels — and The One From The Other marks Gunther’s return to the printed page after nearly 20 years.

That’s an awfully long time for Bernie Gunther to sit in Kerr’s mental pantry, and it shows. In Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy (A) Bernie Gunther was a cunning thug whose heart still had some surprising soft spots. The social upheaval that gave rise to the Third Reich provided Kerr with ample opportunity to displace the genre’s conventions. Post-war Germany is a similarly fecund environment, but the instincts that kept Bernie alive on the Russian Front (and, earlier, Dachau) seem to be in serious decline. What surprised Bernie in the trilogy were moments when it seemed like virtue was possible. What surprises him now are a few blatantly obvious genre tropes. At one late point in The One From The Other, when Bernie sighs with relief, I slapped my forehead and said, “D’oh!” This was not the Bernie Gunther I remembered.

Of course, it could be that Gunther’s wartime experiences have blunted his formerly shrewd perceptiveness. It could also be that Kerr (and this particular reader) just need a little more time with the character. I certainly didn’t begrudge my time with this book. Just because it doesn’t soar to the heights, or plummet to the depths, of the trilogy that gave birth to the character doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading. Nor does it deter me in the least from reading Kerr’s next Gunther novel, A Quiet Flame (A).

Flashback: more WP on the Berlin Noir trilogy, here.

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