Joseph Kanon


(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 12, 2005)

"Watch you don't make a mess of things. All this huffing and puffing. Shall I tell you something? You will never understand this society. This isn't even Italy. It's Venice. Nothing has been real here since Napoleon."

Setting this novel in Venice in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Joseph Kanon creates a stimulating mystery that turns the city itself into a major character. Venice, unlike other areas of Italy, has not been damaged physically by the war. La Fenice, the opera house, has reopened, elaborate parties have resumed, and celebrities, including Cole Porter and his wife, have returned to the city.

The political atmosphere remains turbulent, however, and complex. The aristocrats, businessmen, and politicians who cooperated with the fascists and Germans are often still in power. The partisans who fought both the fascists and the Germans regard many of these people as criminals and traitors, and the Communists who are attempting to give power to the common man, are making inroads into society with their promises of reform. No one is quite sure exactly where the church and particular priests stand, and resentment against the Jews is still strong.

Into this milieu comes Grace Miller, an American widow who once lived in Venice, and her son Adam, who has just been released from the US Army, where he served as part of a de-Nazification team in Frankfurt. Grace is about to marry Gianni Maglione, a Venetian doctor she knew in the past, and Adam, a protective son, wonders about Gianni's past history. When Adam meets Claudia Grassini, a young Jewish woman who managed, somehow, to survive internment at a camp in Fossoli, they embark on a wild, passionate affair, but when Claudia is introduced to Gianni at a party, disaster strikes. Recognizing him immediately, she hisses, "Assassino," as she claws his face.

Gianni, she later tells Adam, was the doctor who betrayed her very ill father to the security forces searching for Jews. Her father was removed from the hospital, and though his name appeared on a list at Auschwitz, he was never seen again. "They won't pay," Claudia says. "Everybody pays but the murderer. And here? Signora Mimi is planning a ball. And the murderer is going to marry a rich American."

Using his past connections in the army to try to get further information about Gianni, Adam tries to walk the fine line between his belief in Claudia's story and the possibility that she is accusing the wrong man, and between his love for Claudia and his love for his mother. The issue becomes more pressing when Claudia is unexpectedly fired from her job and expelled from her apartment. When violence occurs, the nightmare in which Claudia and Adam find themselves intensifies.

Throughout the novel, Kanon raises questions about crime and its appropriate punishment. War crimes, hate crimes, crimes of passion, crimes committed for altruistic reasons, crimes committed to avenge the past, and crimes committed in self-defense all play a part in the plot here. More importantly, the author raises questions about the punishments, if any, associated with these crimes. German officials faced war crimes trials, but no similar trials were held for the Venetians who may have cooperated with them. Partisans may have committed murders to avenge the deaths of their own by the fascists and may have escaped punishment. Are these crimes less serious, or even justifiable, because they are seen to balance the scale of justice? Is the murder of a criminal excusable? Who decides who the "criminals" are? Kanon raises serious questions about crime and punishment here, and he does it within the limits of an exciting, fast-paced mystery and love story.

Kanon's characters are developed as much as they need to be in order to convey the intensity of the conflicts raised by the plot and themes. None of the characters are fully developed, but they do not need to be. Adam's intense introspection regarding the death of Gianni, and his willingness to work with the police investigators, help focus the reader's attention on important themes of crime and justice, rather than on the specifics of Gianni's death, and Claudia's vulnerability as a result of the Holocaust gives added poignancy to her similar self-examinations. The local police chief brings his own past into his investigation, adding even more complexity to these issues. When an investigation into Gianni's past leads to the arrest of an innocent person for his murder, Adam and Claudia must decide how far they are willing to go for the sake of justice.

As is always the case with Kanon, the setting is brilliantly presented--beautifully described in all kinds of weather and at all times of day, and so vivid that one cannot imagine the story taking place in any other location. Venice works its ancient magic on all the characters, but it is a decaying city, literally sinking under its own weight, and that, too, ties in, thematically, with the murder of Gianni, the search for his killer or killers, and an appropriate and just resolution. Ultimately, a chase scene through the canals of Venice, which calls to mind the James Bond chase scene in Moonraker, leads to a stunning conclusion, filled with twists, though whether justice is truly served remains an open question for the reader.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 44 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Alibi at Henry Holt and Company

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"The Good German"

(Reviewed Judi Clark NOV 1, 2001)

"Jake lit a cigarette. Had Otto Klopfer smoked in the cab while he ran the motor, listening to the thumps behind him? There must have been screaming, a furious pounding on the van. And he's sat there, foot on the pedal. How could they do it? All the questions came back to that."

Freelance reporter Jake Geismar came to Berlin in 1936 to cover the 11th Summer Olympics Games. He was lucky enough to be a guest of U.S. Ambassador Dodd, able to watch the games from their box in the stadium. The Dodds were appalled with the party the Nazi's threw, but Jake was fascinated and decided to stay. After all, it was easy for a reporter to make a living while the Nazis supplied the headlines. By the time Jake signed on as the Berlin correspondent for Columbia Broadcasting Systems, information was constricted and censored by Goebbels' Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment. Yet, it was here and at that time that he met Lena. A woman married to a mathematics professor, who worked only briefly for Columbia, and after quitting her job at her husband's request, used her free afternoons illicitly with Jake. As Germany was about to declare war on America, Jake was forced to leave Berlin -- and Lena. That was in 1941.

For four years, Jake followed the war, first for Columbia out of London and then quitting Columbia so that he could see the "fighting war." In North Africa he caught shrapnel and then spent time recovering in Cairo. Against odds, he lucked out and joined up with Patton in France and then again for the final race east, seeing Buchenwald, then Nordhausen and Camp Dora where he was gripped by "the story they all missed, the hand you couldn't shake off." All of this made him near famous. And then for what he didn't report, put him in good stead with the military.

So now it's the end of the war on the European front and the Westerners are finally allowed into Berlin after the two-month Russian occupation. Collier magazine has hired him to write four articles on the Allied occupation. Through an old connection, he gets a pass to the Potsdam Conference where the "Big Three" leaders are meeting to discuss postwar arrangements. Although in Berlin as a military correspondent Jake's main objective is to seek out Lena to know that she is still alive and to keep his promise that he'd come back. At the same time, he wants to find an angle on the Berlin story, one that is not fed to him by Ron Erlich from the press office. Little does he know how these two goals will intercept and entangle.

When Jake sees the extent of the devastation he's taken aback and realizes that finding Lena is going to be as difficult as finding the words for a story. The Soviet army has wrought Carthage like destruction on Berlin. What the Allied bombers missed was finished off by Russian artillery and tanks. Almost half of its four million inhabitants are gone or still floating in the water, so many dead the Russians were unable, or unwilling, to clear them. He starts his search by going to Lena and Emil's apartment building, where he finds that "there was nothing left but rubble and the cloying smell. Whose body?"

Even though the press are invited to Berlin, they are not allowed to actually attend the Potsdam Conference. Only the photographers have the privilege to go on site. Thus Jake sneaks a ride into the Cecileinhof by posing as Liz Yeager's photo assistant. During the brief photo session, a body of an American soldier is fished out of the lake, the wind catching his torn money bag letting loose thousands of occupation marks. Jake sees all this and is at the body before any of the Russians understand what's going on. When he reaches for the dog tags, he sees the soldier's face and is shocked that it is the air sick boy who flew on the plane with them from Frankfort. Then he notices the bullet hole in his chest. So what was Lieutenant Tully doing in the Russian zone when it had been blockaded since they arrived in preparation for the conference? And why did he have so much money on him? Did he sell something on the Black Market? For Jake this crime might be the key to his real story.

So begins Jake's dual research into the story of Lt. Tully, a murdered soldier that, strangely, no one seems to care about, and his search for Lena amongst the ruins. As his investigation proceeds, Jake is surprised to find that many of his German friends were Nazi party members even before he left Berlin, that every new thing he learns about that four year period, is worse than the last and, naturally, everything is political. As the Americans worry about the four "D"s -- demilitarization, de-nazification, decartelization, and democracy, Jake bumps up against each effort and finds that complications are leading to a new kind of war, even before the reparations are settled. And the American Military Government is not so keen on his hunt for the soldier's killer.

Nothing is simple. As Jake learns more he learns that nothing is what it appears to be; its all mixed up. Whereas, Jake decides to track Lena's husband, Emil, through the records in order to find Lena, he ends up needing to find Emil as the key to his Lt. Tully murder. As Jake learns more about how Emil conducted himself during the war, Jake despises him and simply wants to turn him over to the de-nazification effort, but the Americans are looking to bring Emil back as their own scientist. Jake can't understand the the difference between Lena's love for him and her loyalty to Emil. "You come in your uniform -- so easy to judge when its not you," she explains. And again, with each twist, the depth of crimes of the ordinary German citizens gets worse and the empathy muddled. Until the question about who is the good German is forever mitigated by circumstances.

The end result is that Kanon has written an excellent historical murder mystery, dismal in its subject matter, but irresistible in its details and plot. Although the story closes to satisfaction, the reader is left with moral ambiguity about the role of the German people, especially the extent to which many complied, simply believing they had to. Essentially, The Good German is one of those novels that after finishing it up, leaves more questions than answers. Do we really know how anyone of us would behave if we were protecting a loved one? ("so easy to judge when its not you") Would we be anymore aware of what our country's citizens were doing? How is it that Jake was a neighbor and a friend and did not know the truth? To that matter, the world participated in the Olympics and did not know what Hitler had already begun. Is there any reparation equal to the crime? Look at the Russians two month occupation, when they attacked Berlin's citizens with murder, rape and banishment and by stripping factories and offices. Was that right? "'Well they got what they deserved,' the congressman said suddenly, a jarring American voice. Jake looked at him. A politician at a wake. 'Didn't they?' he said, a little defiantly."

I liked this novel because it gave me something new to think about. I'm impressed with the Kanon's ability to bring out the "lunar landscape" and the jarring events, such as in this passage: "But do you know the strange thing? The telephones worked right to the end. That's the thing I remember about Pariserstrasse. The bombs and everybody running here and there was a telephone ringing. Even then." Kanon holds our attention by leading us through a tight and puzzling crime in this rarest of landscapes. Of course, reading this after September 11th, adds a richness and a further appreciation for Kanon's imagination.

The Good German focuses on a unique point in time. Historians say that if the Potsdam Conference had had a different outcome the succeeding events might not have escalated to the Cold War. Kanon's plausible plot shows how the Cold War came about by the US and Russia focusing on capturing the single most valuable war prize - Hitler's scientists. There is no limit on the number of books, both fiction and nonfiction, published on the subject of World War II and Hitler. I've been watching HBO's Band of Brothers and am enjoying the mini-series, and admittedly decided to read The Good German because of this new awareness. Then again, reading the The Good German has enriched seeing the mini-series. Either way The Good German, in Jake's words about one of his own articles, is "not an apologia; something more complicated, a crime story where everyone was guilty."

  • Amazon readers rating: from 92 reviews

Read an excerpt from The Good German at

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About the Author:

Joseph KanonJoseph Kanon began his career in publishing while an undergraduate at Harvard, reading manuscripts for The Atlantic Monthly. He continued publishing work while a graduate student in England, then returned to the United States, working as a book review editor (and writer) for the Saturday Review. After a series of editorial and managerial positions in book publishing, he eventually became President & CEO of E.P. Dutton, then Executive Vice President of Houghton Mifflin's Trade and Reference Division. After publishing Prodigal Spy, he became a full-time writer. Kanon lives in New York City with his wife, Robin Straus, a literary agent, and their two sons. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014