(Reviewed by Tony Ross SEP 30, 2006)
Fans of Kerr's brilliant Berlin Noir trilogy (such as myself), will likely be dismayed by his new WWII thriller. The brooding mood and fine detail that made that series so memorable is almost entirely absent in this high-level espionage escapade. Which is not to say it isn't entertaining, because it is a reasonable beach/airplane page-turner. But at the heart, it's just a run of the mill 450 page potboiler.
The basic idea is that in 1943, the outcome of the European theater was more or less a foregone conclusion. The Allies would win, and the only questions were how long it would take and at what cost. What Kerr is most interested in is showing all the jostling for position both between the Allies (eg. how much territory is Stalin going to get), and the various factions within Germany, as all parties engage in separate secret peace talks. Amidst this frantic backdoor maneuvering, the Nazi high command comes across less as fearsome masterminds of war and terror than a particularly cunning and nasty group of teenage girls, each attempting to sow dissention, backstab, and rise to the top of postwar Germany. Readers without a fairly good background in the German side of the war (such as myself) will need a scorecard to keep track of who hates who, why, and which people are plotting against each other. It gets so mind-boggling that one half suspects that if all that energy had only been directed at defeating the Allies we might all be speaking German now.
In any event, the book's protagonist is Prof. Willard Mayer, an American professor of empirical philosophy now employed as an analyst for the OSS due to his pre-war German background and language skills. He is asked by President Roosevelt to evaluate a report on the Katyn Forest Massacre, in which thousands of Polish officers were killed by the Soviets (remember, the Polish were Allied forces). Later, the President asks him to be part of his staff heading to the Tehran Conference where the "Big Three" (Roosevelt, Stalin, Churchill) would meet to strategize about the war and bargain about what would happen afterward. En route, Mayer slowly starts to believe he has uncovered some kind of plot to kill one of the Big Three, and most of the middle of the book has him poking around trying to prove this in the face of much skepticism. Meanwhile, we get a lot of stuff from the German side, including Gen. Schellenberg's audacious plot to kill the Big Three, and thus with a single stroke, change the entire complexion of the war. Here, there is a lot of stuff involving long-range bombers, paratroopers and the like (in a historical at the end of the book one learns that paratroopers were inserted in Iran for just such a purpose!).
Other, less important historical tidbits are plastered all over the place, few of which add to the story. More problematic is Mayer, a protagonist bordering on anti-hero who is entirely self-centered, pretentious, and irritating. On the one hand, it's nice to come across a thriller protagonist who isn't a superhero, but did he have to be that annoying? His major transformation near the end feels totally unconvincing and ends the book on a particularly flat note. His presence also gives Kerr an excuse to inject a tiresome running debate concerning moral tradeoffs and realpolitik that reads high-school stuff -- on the level of "If you could go back in time and shoot Hitler, would you? Would that be a moral act?" Schellenberg is a much more interesting character, and the sections set in Germany tend to be the stronger ones. The entire book is populated by historical figures, who tend to overshadow everything else when they are on stage. All the usual suspects are there, Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, Himmler, Borman, Goering, et al, but we also get a surprisingly indiscreet Kim Philby, as well as Lord Rothschild , and even Evelyn Waugh makes a rather silly cameo.
Definitely not what fans of the Berlin Noir trilogy would have hoped for. Those who enjoy WWII thrillers will probably be a lot more forgiving -- after all, it is a pretty good read when compared with most of the genre. And to Kerr's credit, he does manage to unveil one big whammy of a twist and his fictionalization of famous historical figures rises well above caricature.
- Amazon readers rating: from 58 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
Bernie Gunther Berlin Noir Books:
- March Violets (1989)
- The Pale Criminal (1990)
- A German Requiem (1991)
- The One from the Other (2006)
- A Quiet Flame (2009)
- If the Dead Rise (2010)
- Field Gray (2011)
- Prague Fatale (2012)
- A Man Without Breath (2013)
- A Philosophical Investigation (1992)
- Dead Meat (1993)
- Gridiron (1995) (released as The Grid in U.S.)
- Esau (1996)
- A Five Year Plan (1997)
- The Second Angel (1998)
- The Shot (1999)
- Dark Matter: The Private Live of Sir Isaac Newton (2002)
- Hitler's Peace (2005)
- Prayer (2013)
Children of the Lamp Series published as P.B. Kerr:
- The Akhenaten Adventure (2004)
- The Blue Djinn of Babylon (2006)
- The Cobra King of Kathmandu (2007)
- Day of the Djinn Warriors (2008)
- Eye of the Forest (2009)
- The Five Fakirs of Faizabad (2010)
- The Grave Robbers of Genghis Khan (2011)
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- Officieal website for Phillip Kerr
- Official website for Philip Kerr as P.B. Kerr
- BrothersJudd review of The Pale Criminal
- Infinity Plus review of The Second Angel
- Complete Review on Dark Matter
- The New York Times review of The One from the Other
- MostlyFiction.com review of A Quiet Flame
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About the Author:
Philip Kerr was born in 1956 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He studied at the University of Birmingham where he studied law, earning a degree in law in 1980. He worked as an advertising copywriter before becoming a full-time writer. He has written for the Sunday Times, Evening Standard and New Statesman.
His "Children of the Lamp" book series was optioned by Hollywood director Steven Spielberg even before was written.
He is married to novelist Jane Thynne and lives in they live in London, England with their three children.