The Good German by Joseph Kanon
This is a classic, a twisty, noirish, romantic thriller. I fell hard for the love interest — the hero’s, that is.
American newsman Jake Geismar flies into Berlin after the death of Hitler on an assignment from a famous magazine. But he has returned really to look for the woman he loves. The moment he lands at Tempelhof airport, he is off looking up old haunts. But everything has been destroyed beyond recognition. Only the house where he lived while reporting from Berlin until he was expelled by the Nazis still stands. And there eventually he finds Lena.
He does not find her as soon as he returns, however. People have been uprooted by the war. Nobody can tell him where Lena is. Until he gets caught up in a murder mystery.
An American is found dead in Potsdam during the Big Three summit where Truman and Churchill meet Stalin. Investigating the mystery, Jake meets a German policeman who suggests meeting another man at a restaurant. There he chances upon an old acquaintance wearing one of Lena’s dresses. But when he accosts her, she bolts. He pursues her to his old flat… and there is Lena. Sick, raped by the Russians, her home destroyed, Lena has taken refuge with the girl who was wearing her dress.
From that moment, the book is pure romance. There is plenty of mystery, enough graft and violence and all the horror of World War II — what the Russians did to Lena, the Nazis to the Jews — but then there is Lena. Beautiful, courageous, utterly feminine. Even when she is not on the scene, as the hero pursues the murder mystery, she is very much on his mind.
There is a connection between the murdered American and Lena’s husband, but no one is saying who killed the American. And the Americans and the Russians are both looking for Lena’s husband. He has managed to escape from detention but no one knows where. They only know he has been looking for Lena.
Yes, Lena is married to a university professor of mathematics. But she fell in love with Jake. They had an affair. And after Jake was expelled by the Nazis, her husband went to work for them.
However, he is not wanted as a war criminal. The Americans as well as the Russians want him to work for them as a scientist — because of the work he did in prison camps.
Nothing is as straightforward as it seems. The title is heavy with irony. All that is par for the course for a thriller noir.
What makes this book a standout is a woman. Kanon can really bring characters to life. Even some of the minor characters make an impression, like the little boy whom Jake is forced to take under his wing and who immediately brings out the mother in Lena.
I won’t forget Lena soon. Jake is another Philip Marlowe. But Lena? Only one woman could play her: Meryl Streep.