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Tough guy, soft boiled

The One From the Other A Bernie Gunther Novel Philip Kerr Marion Wood/Putnam: 372 pp., $26.95

September 10, 2006|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is a Times film critic.

I read a lot of detective novels, but that doesn't mean I'm in the habit of acting like the characters they portray. Yet there I was a dozen years ago, dialing number after number and whispering furtively into the phone, "I have something for you. Something I know you're going to like."

OK, maybe I'm over-dramatizing (blame it on all those books), but the story is true. After I'd read "Berlin Noir," a paperback anthology of Philip Kerr's trilogy of hard-boiled novels featuring Bernie Gunther, I reached out to my fellow zealots, people eternally on the lookout for the next great tough-talking PI, and told them that this was the real deal. They all agreed.

With "March Violets" in 1989, "The Pale Criminal" in 1990 and "A German Requiem" in 1991, British novelist Kerr had done something special. He had not only created a detective whose dialogue crackled in the best Raymond Chandler tradition, he had also set him in a milieu that was as unusual as it was convincingly re-created.

For Bernhard "Bernie" Gunther did not prowl the lonely streets of New York or Los Angeles. He set up shop, as the title of the 1994 omnibus collection indicates, in Germany, in the time period before and after World War II, a setting tailor-made for the ethical ambiguity and moral quandaries he would face.

It's taken 15 years for Kerr (who's written nine other novels in different styles in the interim) to return to the scene of those particular crimes in "The One From the Other." Meeting up with Gunther again after all these years turns out to be like meeting an old friend you haven't seen in quite some time: He's changed and not necessarily for the better.

Although the first two Gunther novels were set before the war, "The One From the Other" takes place largely in 1949, two years after "A German Requiem." Gunther and his recently hospitalized wife are operating a hotel in Dachau, of all places, an establishment so moribund someone tells him, "I've seen body bags that were more welcoming than this place."

Soon the wife and the hotel meet unfortunate ends, and our tarnished hero is back in the detective business. Though hostile to the Nazis and never a party member, Gunther, like many prewar employees of Kripo, the Berlin criminal police, did military service in the SS, where he did some things that continue to haunt him.

Not surprisingly, Gunther's first cases involve working for the families of people accused of war crimes, assignments that are as tedious for the reader as they are for him. Also not galvanizing is the nearly 40-page prologue set in Palestine in 1937 that opens the book. It's almost as though those 15 years away from Gunther made Kerr rusty and he wanted some space to work his way back into shape.

Then Britta Warzok, the knockout no hard-boiled tale can do without, arrives on the scene. She wants Gunther to determine whether her husband, a wanted war criminal who helped run a particularly evil concentration camp, is alive or dead. She hopes it's the latter, because she wants to marry again.

Gunther takes the case and it leads him deeper into the darkest corners of the postwar world, to underground railroads that spirit war criminals out of Europe. Soon "The One From the Other's" involving plot has him hip-deep in complexities. No wonder he believes that "[d]etective work is a little like walking into a movie that's already started.... You pay your money and you take your chances."

The Gunther of this book turns out to be more of a blunt instrument than the investigator of the previous ones. He's brutally cynical about human nature and the state of Germany, and he pushes the tough-guy stuff too hard for both his own good and the book's.

This comes out in the writing, in Gunther's language in particular. Some of his one-liners still have the old zing -- a noisy hospital is compared to "hell with all the windows open" -- but too many others are standard-issue gibes like "she'll play you like a Steinway."

Also, the slang Gunther uses here is wearily pedestrian: calling someone's mouth a "strudel hole" and using words such as "mitts," "paws," "pill-pushers" and "whiz juice" that are more likely to make you wince than glow with admiration.

Equally unconvincing this time around is the re-creation of postwar Germany. Although some of the details are excellent, like the notion that good weather was called "Hitler weather" during the Reich, many of the others are too calculated, added in what comes off as a self-conscious attempt to give the narrative the sense of authenticity it doesn't otherwise manage.

On the plus side, starting the book in Palestine, combined with its taunts about American moral hypocrisy, hints at a few interesting parallels between the Americans as an occupying force in 1949 Germany and their role in today's Iraq. It's all so subtle that it might be unintentional, but in the current climate it's easy to think otherwise.

Ultimately, however, the writing in "The One From the Other" simply isn't as taut as it is in the earlier Gunther adventures, robbing this book of the must-read urgency its predecessors had. Writing this kind of fiction is very much a high-wire performance act, and being out of practice can be fatal. *

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