Looking for the good

Joseph Kanon's novel The good German is set in Berlin in 1945. The war in Europe has just ended, the war in the Pacific is about to end, and while Jake Geismar, an American journalist, is back in Berlin looking for a story and his missing girlfriend, a new Cold War is about to start.

Geismar finds Lena, the love of his life, but life gets a lot more complicated when a GI, who had smuggled Lena's husband out of an American internment camp, turns up dead in Russian Potsdam. Geismar finds it hard to know who to trust, and who really is a "good German".

As historical thrillers go, this is a pretty good one. Published in 2001, the novel evidently inspired David Downing's later Station series (more here on Bookhound) and Pierre Frei's Berlin. As far as historical background is concerned, it's superb, effortlessly evoking a ruined city trying desperately to rise from the ashes. And the basic storyline concerning the black market (inevitable reminders of Graham Greene's The third man), spying, and the foundations of the Cold War is excellent. But, somehow, it was a bit lacking for me.

The characterisation is thin, and although Berlin itself leaps into life, the characters universally fail to do so. The plot is at times clunky, and although the novel understandably has a world-weary air to it, I began to wonder why I should even care about these characters. By two-thirds of the way through, I didn't, so what started as a pretty good read, ended up being fairly tedious.

Perhaps I wasn't in the mood, but I wouldn't rate this as a great historical thriller, even though lots of the components worked really well. Interesting, but fails to deliver.


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