Thursday, August 12, 2010

Spy vs. Spy

It's hard to believe that a writer could produce something boring that's set in Weimar Germany (and not only Weimar Germany, but Berlin, that teeming city of vice! The inspiration for Faust's Metropolis!) The decadence! The conflicting ideologies! The clash between Germany's Romantic, fatalistic culture with the rise of communism and the storm clouds of national socialism on the horizon! The breaking of social taboos!

Yet, somehow, Craig Nova has produced the literary equivalent of a stale Saltine with his latest, The Informer.

Shabbily written and poorly constructed, The Informer's characters are stale and two-dimensional, the dialogue is weak, the plot is mushy and thin, and Nova fails rather spectacularly at conjuring up Berlin. His one attempt, name-dropping Berlin's famous Hotel Adlon (which feels here like an obligatory name-check after a hasty Wiki crawl) belly flops because of the book's poor editorship. "Hotel Aldon?"

Anyway, since I felt obligated to finish this book, which is kind of like trying to muster up enthusiasm after being given a piece of pre-chewed gum, here goes:

The titular 'informer' is a prostitute named Gaelle, who has an icky burn scar on one cheek and a creepy, limping pimp, Felix. Although Gaelle has wealthy parents, for reasons never explained and completely unbelievable, she chooses to work as a prostitute, and for reasons even more ridiculous, her burn scar somehow makes her ridiculously desireable to Nazis, Communists, and psychopaths alike. Yeah, I don't get it either, but apparently it made sense to Nova.

Gaelle flumps around Nova's sketchily drawn Berlin and, again, randomly and with no apparent motivation, decides to start selling information. Why? We don't know. Nova doesn't seem to know either. But in Nova-world, all Gaelle has to do is wander down the street, and a young Nazi named Aksel and a communist named Karl are panting after her, just begging to give her all sorts of sensitive information, without any obvious provocation.

Meanwhile, strangled prostitutes are turning up in the parks of Berlin and - you know what? Forget it. This book sucks. It's one of the worst things I've read this year.

So, let's turn to Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir, a trilogy of three short novels, March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiem.

Philip Kerr doesn't just embrace noir, he chases it down, wrestles it into the dirt, and then rubs its face in the mud. Berlin Noir is dripping with rainy streets, illicit drugs, sleek cars, fast women, and faster affairs. Bernard Gunther, Kerr's ex-policeman/private investigator, embodies the noir antihero. He's quick to use violence, not above smacking his sources around, and even quicker at jumping into bed with all sorts of unsuitable ladies - usually the ones he's supposed to be helping.

March Violets follows Gunther as he investigates the mysterious death of the recently married daughter of a wealthy industrialist, ending up on the wrong side of the ever-strengthening Nazi Party. In The Pale Criminal, World War II is looming, and someone is leaving mutilated bodies stashed in the warehouses and alleys of Berlin. A German Requiem is set after the end of World War II, in the rubble of postwar Berlin. Chasing war criminals, Gunther winds up in Austria, navigating the treacherous space between the Russian and American armies and the remnants of the Nazi Party.

Kerr's Berlin is dank and dangerous, his characters are mercenary and self-serving, and his dialog is snappy and brisk. Sure, sometimes the prose gets florid and over the top (particularly when the sweet sweet ladies are involved), and some of Gunther's internal monologues are unintentionally hilarious, but Kerr tackles noir with an admirable zeal, and his attention to historical detail is deep.


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