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Jake Geismar, formerly one of Murrow's boys with CBS Radio in Berlin, returns to the defeated city to cover the Potsdam Conference for Collier's magazine.  This welcome assignment affords him the opportunity to try and track down his pre-War lover Lena Brandt, wife of a brilliant mathematician who ended up working in the Nazi rocket program.  As he searches through the rubble of the devastated city and navigates the corruption and black markets, Jake also becomes involved in a murder mystery, surrounding the shooting of a venal American G.I.  It quickly becomes evident that the two investigations are  intertwined as Jake uncovers a covert battle between American and Soviet intelligence operatives aimed at collecting as many Nazi scientists as they can get their respective hands on, both sides needing to pick their brains to gain an advantage in the Third World War that obviously looms on the horizon.

Mr. Kanon, as in his earlier thriller Los Alamos, makes effective use of the historic setting, letting the actual situation provide a constant background tension.  He also creates a series of characters whose motivations and ethical dilemmas are sufficiently complex as to make it seem like he takes the moral dimension of his tale seriously.  But again, as in his earlier book, the author fails miserably in fleshing out the full moral context of the story.

Obviously one has to feel some qualms about the crimes that were excused or overlooked in our haste to rebuild Germany and to get ahold of Nazi technology and expertise that had made Germany such a formidable military power, but Mr. Kanon ignores the fact that we had just spent four years ignoring equally repellent Soviet crimes while they helped us defeat the Nazis.  By 1945 it was way too late to reclaim our spiritual virginity, we'd already bedded down with one evil, all we did after the war was hop into a different bed, and at least in the latter case we'd defeated the Germans before we collaborated with them.  Though FDR seems to have deluded himself about the true nature of the Soviets, Winston Churchill was realistic enough to acknowledge that they were evil.  Criticized by his political cohorts for being overenthusiastic about the Russian alliance, Churchill said :

    If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of

The comparison is entirely apt.

Personally, I think it was a mistake to ally ourselves with the USSR in the first place, I'd have left them and the Nazis to grind themselves into a bloody pulp on the Eastern Front.  In the event, even after helping the Soviets conquer all of Eastern Europe and even with them threatening a war-weary Western European, I think you could have made a good case for bringing American troops home after Germany was defeated.  Trying to dominate all of Europe would have so overextended the USSR that it would have fallen apart even more quickly than it did as a result of the fifty year policy of containment that we pursued instead.  But we didn't follow either of these options; we confronted Hitler with the Soviet Union at our side and then confronted the Soviets with a democratic West Germany and a number of former Nazis at our side.  It is utterly disingenuous to mount one's high horse over the one moral compromise, I believe the lesser, without at least acknowledging the other.

Beyond this intellectual dishonesty, there are a few other problems with the book.  For one thing it is simply too long and owes its length to quite standard chase scenes and gunplay.  It doesn't help matters either that Mr. Kanon has Jake running all over Berlin facing off with Russian generals, American cloak and dagger types, and black marketers.  George Clooney has signed to play him in the movie, but it reads like a role for Schwarzenegger.  The other problem with Jake is that his own moral difficulties make it all too easy for those he confronts to turn the tables on him.  For one thing he's an adulterer.  For another, he's manipulating people, cutting corners, and causing deaths to serve his own purposes.   And he's accompanying  a conquering army; imagine how he might have acted if he'd been trying to survive the death throes of the Third Reich.  This makes his self-righteous indignation awfully difficult to stomach.

Unfortunately, Mr. Kanon is a bestselling author so no editor is going to push him to improve.  He's now settled into a formula that works well enough, but leaves the reader somewhat frustrated.  A better, more focussed, novel lurks within the too numerous pages of this just adequate thriller.


Grade: (C)


See also:

Joseph Kanon (2 books reviewed)
Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOK SITE : The Good German : A Novel by Joseph Kanon (Henry Holt)
    -AUTHOR PAGE : Joseph Kanon (Bold Type, Random House)
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of The Good German (January Magazine)
    -ESSAY : Imagining the Icon (Joseph Kanon, Bold Type)
    -INTERVIEW : with Joseph Kanon (Ann Online)
    -PROFILE :   The prodigal publishing exec : Joseph Kanon's still in the business, but now as a novelist ( FRITZ LANHAM, 2/10/1999, Houston Chronicle)
    -PROFILE : Kanon returns to Cold War in second thriller (Caroline Abels, February 09, 1999, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
    -REVIEW : of The Good German (Neil Gordon, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Good German (ANDREW NAGORSKI, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of Los Alamos ( Lawrence Thornton, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Los Alamos (YVONNE CRITTENDEN, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of Los Alamos (USA Today)
    -REVIEW : of Los Alamos (WILLIAM GEORGIADES , Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Los Alamos (David Walton, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
    -REVIEW : of Los Alamos (Art Jester, Lexington Herald-Leader)
    -REVIEW : of Los Alamos (The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   )
    -REVIEW : of Los Alamos (Mystery Guide)
    -REVIEW : of Los Alamos (Edward Morris, Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of The Prodigal Spy (Morton Kondracke, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Prodigal Spy by Joseph Kanon (Steve Nemmers, The Mystery Reader)
    -REVIEW : of The Prodigal Spy (Steve Duin,The Oregonian)
    -REVIEW : of Prodigal Spy (Tom Walker, Denver Post)
    -AWARD : 1998 Edgar Allan Poe Award Winners : Best First Novel