The Good German

The Good German

3.8 34
by Joseph Kanon, Michael Kramer

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With World War II finally ending, Jake Geismar, former Berlin correspondent for CBS, has wangled one of the coveted press slots for the Potsdam Conference. His assignment: a series of articles on the Allied occupation. His personal agenda: to find Lena, the German mistress he left behind at the outbreak of the war.

When Jake stumbles on a murder -- an American

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With World War II finally ending, Jake Geismar, former Berlin correspondent for CBS, has wangled one of the coveted press slots for the Potsdam Conference. His assignment: a series of articles on the Allied occupation. His personal agenda: to find Lena, the German mistress he left behind at the outbreak of the war.

When Jake stumbles on a murder -- an American soldier washes up on the conference grounds -- he thinks he has found the key that will unlock his Berlin story. What Jake finds instead is a larger story of corruption and intrigue reaching deep into the heart of the occupation. Berlin in July 1945 is like nowhere else -- a tragedy, and a feverish party after the end of the world.

As Jake searches the ruins for Lena, he discovers that years of war have led to unimaginable displacement and degradation. As he hunts for the soldier's killer, he learns that Berlin has become a city of secrets, a lunar landscape that seethes with social and political tension. When the two searches become entangled, Jake comes to understand that the American Military Government is already fighting a new enemy in the east, busily identifying the "good Germans" who can help win the next war. And hanging over everything is the larger crime, a crime so huge that it seems -- the worst irony -- beyond punishment.

At once a murder mystery, a moving love story, and a riveting portrait of a unique time and place, The Good German is a historical thriller of the first rank.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Again taking one of the 20th century's most momentous periods as a backdrop, Kanon recreates Berlin in the months following WWII in this lavishly atmospheric thriller overburdened with political and romantic intrigue. Though driven by strong characters and rich historical detail, the book ultimately falters under the weight of a ponderous, edgeless plot. At the center of the drama is Jake Geismar, a journalist who arrives in Berlin ostensibly to cover the Potsdam Conference. In reality, he's consumed with finding his prewar lover, Lena, with whom he carried on a torrid affair unbeknownst to her husband. Before he finds her, however, Geismar becomes intrigued by the murder of an American soldier whose body washes ashore near the conference grounds. The military's reluctance to investigate or provide any details of the murder convinces Geismar that this could be his big story. Though he's warned not to meddle, Geismar can't resist the story's draw. His investigation leads him deeply into Berlin's agonizing struggle for survival its black market, its collective guilt and its citizens' feeble attempts to wash themselves clean of wartime atrocities. And, most importantly, Geismar learns of the Allies' frantic attempts to round up Nazi scientists, including Lena's husband, Emil, whose expertise with missiles made Germany such a fierce enemy. Kanon (Los Alamos; The Prodigal Spy) is at his strongest when giving voice to the hard choices and moral dilemmas of the times, yet he labors at bringing his plot to a close and blurs its core in the process. While his descriptive skills have never been sharper the writing is uniformly elegant Kanon's third thriller since leaving his job as a publisingexecutive digs in when it should be attacking. BOMC featured selection; $150,000 marketing campaign; movie rights optioned by Warner Bros.; 12-city author tour. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Set amidst the rubble of a just-vanquished Third Reich Berlin, this third thriller by the author of Los Alamos is made less than thrilling by weak plotting. Jake Geismar, a U.S. reporter assigned to cover the Potsdam Conference for Collier's magazine, stumbles upon a story that is intertwined with his own life. Though he has returned to Berlin primarily to reunite with his prewar lover, Geismar confronts a Germany he no longer recognizes. Further, he is compelled to solve the murder of an American soldier found with a money belt stuffed with black-market cash. The book's title is by turns ironic and laden with pathos. Unfortunately, the characters are stereotypes, in particular the Russians are we returning to the height of Cold War antagonism? Recommended only to meet demand, which may be considerable, given the book's heavy-duty marketing budget. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/01.] David Dodd, Marin Cty. Free Lib., San Rafael, CA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Beaten, battered Berlin hides criminals and secrets from an American journalist looking for an old lover, her husband, one or two murderers, and answers. Lots of answers. A-bomb development, Russians, and cuckoldry worked well for Kanon in his 1997 bestseller Los Alamos. He's hacking away at that vein again, but now he's in ruined postwar Berlin where semifamous journalist Jake Geismar hopes to find Lena Brandt, his prewar mistress, as well as good stories for Collier's magazine. The city Jake loved in its dreadful Nazi days is barely recognizable, with much of it leveled and the Russians laying waste to what's left. Finagling his way into the Potsdam conference but excluded from actual dealings, the reporter spots a corpse bobbing in a nearby reach of the river and, upon pulling it out, finds the body to be that of the young soldier on Jake's flight into Berlin, an edgy lad whose encounter with the barf bag may have had to do as much with nervousness as with the bumpy flight. Just as the body is whisked away by the authorities, Jake spots a bullet hole. The search for the assassin merges with the search for Lena, and then, once Lena is found, the search for Lena's husband Emil, an apparently bloodless academic who became part of the war works and is now wanted for all the wrong reasons by both the Americans and their less and less chummy allies, the Russians. Jake's reporting, difficult enough given the stone walls he's running into, turns ugly and dangerous when spunky gal photographer Liz Yeager takes a bullet that may have been meant for Jake while they're doing a little black-market shopping. Nasty Soviet General Sikorsky was on the scene. Did he direct the bullet? And the Americanofficer who also took a bullet but whose life Geismar saved-was he part of the problem? Sorting it all out will involve an unpleasant congressman, a treacherous but tragic Jewish mother, some waifs, a cynical German ex-cop, and, off in the distance but not to be ignored, rocketeer and future Disney property Werner von Braun. Bloated. Book-of-the-Month Club featured selection; $150,000 ad/promo; film rights to Warner Bros.; author tour
The New York Times Book Review
[Kanon] is fast approaching the complexity and relevance not just of le Carré and Greene but even of Orwell: provocative, fully realized fiction that explores, as only fiction can, the reality of history as it is lived by individual men and women.
The Washington Post
As he did in Los Alamos, Kanon demonstrates an eerie mastery of the evocative historical detail....You can feel the shattered glass crunching beneath your feet as you read. You can smell the smoke-scorched broken bricks.... Kanon is as ambitious a novelist as he is a gifted one.
The Boston Globe
A terrific book...Kanon is the heir apparent to Graham Greene and early-and mid-passage le Carré, for he writes of moral quandaries that are real and not created to drive a plot....The multilayered story is beautifully told.
Los Angeles Times
Kanon serves up a potent mix of intrigue, cynicism, and an occasional flash of idealism, which adds up to a riveting yarn.
The Baltimore Sun
The kind of book that reads so easily that it's almost impossible to put down once you've started it.
Gripping...Kanon has written a tale about the untenable choices war entails, and about the moral dangers of demonization. For American readers, the book cuts to the bone, coming at a time when we have become the demonized and are doing our best to avoid becoming the demonizers.

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The war had made him famous. Not as famous as Murrow, the voice of London, and not as famous as Quent Reynolds, now the voice of the documentaries, but famous enough to get a promise from Collier's ("four pieces, if you can get there") and then the press pass to Berlin. In the end, it was Hal Reidy who'd made the difference, juggling the press slots like seating arrangements, UP next to ScrippsHoward, down the table from Hearst, who'd assigned too many people anyway.

"I can't get you out till Monday, though. They won't give us another plane, not with the conference on. Unless you've got some pull. "

"Only you."

Hal grinned. "You're in worse shape than I thought. Say hello to Nanny Wendt for me, the prick." Their censor from the old days, before the war, when they'd both been with Columbia, a nervous little man, prim as a governess, who liked to run a pen through their copy just before they went on the air. "The Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment," Hal said, the way he always did. "I wonder what happened to him. Goebbels poisoned his own kids, I hear."

"No, Magda," Jake said. " The gnädige frau. In chocolates. "

"Yeah, sweets to the sweet. Nice people." He handed Jake the traveling orders. "Have a good time."

"You should come too. It's a historic occasion.

"So's this," Hal said, pointing to another set of orders. "Two more weeks and I'm home. Berlin. Christ. I couldn't wait to get out. And you want to go back?"

Jake shrugged. "It's the last big story of the war."

"Sitting around a table, divvying up the pot."

"No. What happens when it's over."

"What happens is, you go home."

"Not yet."

Hal glanced up. "You think she's still there, he said flatly.

Jake put the orders in his pocket, not answering.

"It's been a while, you know. Things happen."

Jake nodded. "She'll be there, Thanks for this. I owe you one."

"More than one," Hal said, letting it go. "Just write pretty. And don't miss the plane."

But the plane was hours late getting into Frankfurt, then hours on the ground unloading and turning around, so it was midafternoon before they took off. The C- 7 was a drafty military transport fitted out with benches along the sides and the passengers, a spillover of journalists who, like Jake, hadn't made the earlier flights, had to shout over the engines. After a while Jake gave up and sat back with his eyes closed, feeling queasy as the plane bumped its way east. There had been drinks while they waited, and Brian Stanley, the Daily Express man who had somehow attached himself to the American group, was already eloquently drunk, with most of the others not far behind. Belser from Gannett, and Cowley, who'd kept tabs on the SHAEF press office from a barstool at the Scribe, and Gimbel, who had traveled with Jake following Patton into Thuringia. They had all been at war forever, in their khakis with the round correspondent patch, even Liz Yeager, the photographer, wearing a heavy pistol on her hip, cowgirl style.

He'd known all of them one way or another, their faces like pins in his own war map. London, where he'd finally left Columbia in '42 because he wanted to see the fighting war. North Africa, where he it and caught a piece of shrapnel. Cairo, where he recovered and drank the nights away with Brian Stanley. Sicily, missing Palermo but managing, improbably, to get on with Patton, so that later, after France, he joined him again for the race east. Across Hesse and Thuringia, everything accelerated, the stop-and-go days of fitful waiting over, finally a war of clear, running adrenaline. Weimar. Then, finally, up to Nordhausen, and Camp Dora, Where everything stopped. Two days of staring, not even able to talk. He wrote down numbers — two hundred a day — and then stopped that too. A newsreel camera filmed the stacks of bodies, jutting bones and floppy genitals. The living, with their striped rags and shaved heads, had no sex.

On the second day, at one of the slave labor camps, a skeleton took his hand and kissed it, then held on to it, an obscene gratitude, gibbering something in Slavic — Polish? Russian? — and Jake froze, trying not to smell, feeling his hand buckle under the weight of the fierce grip. "I'm not a soldier," he said, wanting to run but unable to take his hand away, ashamed, caught now too. The story they'd all missed, the hand you couldn't shake off.

"Old home week for you, boyo, isn't it?" Brian said, cupping his hands to be heard.

"You've been before?" Liz said, curious.

"Lived here. One of Ed's boys, darling, didn't you know?" Brian said. "Till the jerries chucked him out. Of course, they chucked everybody out. Had to, really. Considering."

"So you speak German?" Liz said. "Thank god somebody does.

"Berliner deutsch, " Brian answered for him, a tease.

"I don't care what kind of deutsch it is," she said, "as long as it's deutsch. " She patted Jake's knees. "You stick with me, Jackson, " she said, like Phil Harris on the radio. Then, "What was it like?"

Well, what was it like? A vise slowly closing. In the beginning, the parties and the hot days on the lakes and the fascination of events. He had come to cover the Olympics in '36 and his mother knew somebody who knew the Dodds, so there were embassy cocktails and a special seat in their box at the stadium. Goebbels' big party on the Pfaueninsel, the trees decked out in thousands of lights shaped like butterflies, officers swaggering along the footpaths, drunk on champagne and importance, throwing up in the bushes. The Dodds were appalled. He stayed. The Nazis supplied the headlines, and even a stringer could live on the rumors, watching the war come day by day. By the time he signed on with Columbia, the vise had shut, rumors now just little gasps for air. The city contracted around him, so that at the end it was a closed circle: the Foreign Press Club in Potsdamerplatz, up the gloomy Wilhelmstrasse to the ministry for the twice-daily briefings, on up to the Adlon, where Columbia kept a room for Shirer and they gathered at the raised bar, comparing notes and watching the SS lounging around the fountain below, their shiny boots on the rim while the bronze frog statues spouted jets of water toward the skylight. Then out the East-West Axis to the broadcasting station on Adolf Hitler Platz and the endless wrangling with Nanny Wendt, then a taxi home to the tapped telephone and the watchful eye of Herr Lechter, the blockleiter who lived in the apartment down the hall, snapped up from some hapless Jews. No air. But that had been at the end.

"It was like Chicago," he said. Blunt and gritty and full of itself, a new city trying to be old. Clumsy Wilhelmine palaces that always looked like banks, but also jokes with an edge and the smell of spilled beer. Sharp midwestern air.

"Chicago? It won't look like Chicago now." This, surprisingly, from the bulky civilian in a business suit, introduced at the airport as a congressman from upstate New York,

"No, indeed," Brian said, mischievous. "All banged about now. Still, what isn't? Whole bloody country's one big bomb site. Do you mind my asking? I've never known. What does one call a congressman? I mean, are you The Honorable?"

"Technically. That's what it says on the envelopes, anyway. But we just use Congressman — or Mister.

"Mister. Very democratic."

"Yes, it is," the congressman said, humorless,

"You with the conference or have you just come for a look-in?" Brian said, playing with him.

"I'm not attending the conference, no."

"Just come to see the raj, then."

"Meaning? "

"Oh, no offense. It's very like, though, wouldn't you say? Military Government. Pukkah sahibs, really."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Well, neither do I, half the time," Brian said pleasantly. "Just a little conceit of mine. Never mind. Here, have a drink," he said, taking another, his forehead sweaty.

The congressman ignored him, turning instead to the young soldier wedged next to him, a last-minute arrival, no duffel; maybe a courier. He was wearing a pair of high riding boots, and his hands were gripping the bench like reins, his face white under a sprinkling of freckles.

"First time in Berlin?" the congressman said.

The soldier nodded, holding his seat even tighter as the plane bounced.

"Got a name, son?" Making conversation.

"Lieutenant Tully," he said, then gulped, covering his mouth.

"You all right?" Liz said to him.

The soldier took off his hat. His red hair was damp.

"Here, just in case," she said, handing him a paper bag.

"How much longer?" he said, almost a moan, holding the bag to his chest with one hand.

The congressman looked at him and involuntarily moved his leg in the tight space, out of harm's way, turning his body slightly so that he was forced to face Brian again.

"You're from New York, you said?"

"Utica, New York."

"Utica," Brian said, making a show of trying to place it, "Breweries, yes?" Jake smiled. In fact, Brian knew the States well. "Fair number of Germans there, if I'm not mistaken."

The congressman looked at him in distaste. "My district is one hundred percent American."

But Brian was bored now. "I daresay," he said, looking away.

"How did you get on this plane anyway? I understood it was for American press."

"Well, there's Allied feeling for you," Brian said to Jake.

The plane dropped slightly, not much more than a dip in a road, but evidently enough for the Soldier, who groaned.

"I'm going to be sick," he said, barely opening the bag in time.

"Careful," the congressman said, trapped.

Copyright © 2001 Joseph Kanon

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