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The Good German    by Joseph Kanon order for
Good German
by Joseph Kanon
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2002 (2001)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This is the third of Joseph Kanon's novels, preceded by Los Alamos and The Prodigal Spy. The author picks unique and intriguing subjects in the era just before and after the end of World War II. In Los Alamos he took on the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb. His hero in The Prodigal Spy grew up the son of a convicted traitor during the Cold War. The Good German is set in 1945 in a Berlin 'where landmarks had disappeared under shifting dunes of rubble'. It is now under Allied Occupation forces at the onset of the Potsdam Conference.

Jake Geismar lived and worked as a journalist in Berlin before the war. He has finagled a press pass to cover the 'last big story of the war', in order to find the girl he left behind him. His love affair with Lena ended when the Germans kicked him out of the country and she remained with her husband. Jake is shocked by the state of the city, 'a vast scene of the crime', in which he realizes 'that the bombs must have scattered people too, like bricks.' While searching for Lena, he stumbles upon a mystery - a dead American soldier floating down to Potsdam to interrupt the Conference photo op. Geismar uncovers a link to scientists (including Lena's husband) whose expertise both Americans and Russians are after as spoils of war.

I found the setting of this story reminiscent of Adam Hall's Quiller series, though the emphasis in Kanon's approach is more on the morality of actions than on the action itself. Plots, counter-plots and the mystery at the core of the tale are very satisfying, but it is the author's portrayal of the complexity of the situation that held my attention. He asks the question that so many have raised about participants (by action or inaction) in the crimes against humanity of Hitler's Germany and in more recent atrocities. 'How could they do it? Not the Hitlers and the Goebbelses - those types you can see any day' but the ordinary people. Lena's father-in-law's answer to his own question is the only one that we can comprehend - they must have a 'missing piece.'

The author portrays many of these individuals for his readers - not just the obvious ones, but also the Jewish woman, the greifer who spotted other Jews for the Nazis. Then he gives us a small thread of hope in a tapestry of horror by revealing the motivation behind her actions in 'a crime story where everyone was guilty.' I also found his occasional invocations of Egypt interesting, with the parallels between slaves building pyramids and Jewish detainees slaving to their deaths in the 'Aladdin's cave' of an underground rocket factory.

Kanon does not pick easy settings, and The Good German is no exception. It's a sophisticated spy story; a tale of love enduring through horror; of interest to anyone who has ever wondered about one of the big questions of the twentieth century - How could so many know and do nothing?

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