Pierre Frei. Berlin. 2003; New York: Grove Press translation, 2005.
I loved this book! It more than satisfied all the elements of mystery, good writing, and totally engaging lead characters. More than anything I've read involving the Second World War, the description of life in post-war disruption induced my empathy for ordinary German civilians. In the 1945 American-occupied zone of bomb-damaged Berlin, police inspector Klaus Dietrich investigates serial killings, handicapped by lack of resources, U.S. cooperation, and sometimes by his own disability.
The reader's need to discover who-dunnit is not as compelling as the enthralling back stories of the victims. For them, it almost seems that everything that can go wrong will go wrong—before, during, and after the war. And yet, the human spirit rises above horrific treatment and fatalism. Subtle community cross-threads are woven into each flashback. Contrasting with the plot tension are the myriad details of resuming life in wretched conditions and making do. Who would believe a police car runs on a coal- and wood-burning stove? A teenager obsesses over a made-to-measure suit to impress a girl. Starving people pawn family treasures for food for a guest. Obtaining a menial job working for the Americans is the immediate height of ambition.
Right to the end, it's an absorbing midnight page-turner. Author Frei has not written any further novels. What a crying shame.
There were crowds of people among the ruins around Potsdamer Platz. Berlin's biggest black market was held there daily. There was nothing you couldn't find being bartered or sold. Gold wedding rings, mink coats and genuine Meissen china changed hands for nylons, coffee, chocolate. American cigarettes, in cartons of ten packs each, fetched a high price. A Leica cost twenty-five cartons of cigarettes. Single packets were more profitable, as Ben knew. The preferred currency was the Allied mark, banknotes which the occupying powers had issued for their troops, although they had soon found their way into the general currency. The old German Reichsmark was hardly worth the paper it was printed on. (133-134)
A hilarious obfuscation between gardener Herr Appel (unwittingly playing the part of a fake Nazi) and Brubaker, a novice reporter of dubious intellect, all arranged by Ben the sly translator for his own hidden agenda:
"Does he speak German?"
"Not a word of it, but I can interpret," Ben steered him into the summerhouse. "This is Herr Appel."
Brubaker had his pencil and notepad ready. "The Führer's right-hand man, is that correct?"
Although Herr Appel spoke no English, he would certainly understand the word 'Führer'. Ben reacted like lightning. "Is it true that the Führer took a great interest in German allotment gardeners?"
Herr Appel's eyes bulged a little more. "Could be. Him being a vegetarian and all, he only ate vegetables. But I can't say any more for sure. I was never in the Party. I'd like to say that loud and clear."
"I was always at his side," translated Ben.
"Where is he now?" Brubaker was trying to make these earth-shattering questions casual.
"What's your favourite vegetable?" Ben interpreted.
"Cauliflower. Brassica oleracea argentinensis, the Argentinian variety. Grows almost of its own accord, delicious with black butter. Ha, butter, did I say?" Herr Appel gave a brief bark of laughter.
"Dead. Or maybe in Argentina. Or both," Ben translated the gardener's culinary observations.
"If he's alive, would you by any chance know his address?" Brubaker persisted.
"Baked with a topping of bread crumbs?"
"No," said Herr Appel.
Outside a whistle was blown. ... "Got to get back to work," Herr Appel grunted. "Don't forget to write how difficult it is for us German allotment gardeners to protect our crops from thieves these days. Only last week, for instance ..."
"The alarm signal. They've got wind of our meeting. I have to leave at once," Ben translated, pushing the Führer's right-hand man out of the summerhouse door. (334-335)
Lee Child. A Wanted Man. New York: Delacorte Press, 2012.
Another quintessential Jack Reacher novel, in which he stumbles into someone else's problem. This time he was minding his own business, hitchhiking in Nebraska. In the space of about two days he meets clandestine agents of every government description and teeters on the brink of a massive terrorist conspiracy. His sharp instincts and training ensure that America will be safe to fight another day. Lots of duplicity—no-one is who they seem to be at first.
Typical Reacher, eh? Heavy on the guy-stuff, the physicality necessary for overcoming great odds, but let's face it, the six foot, five inch Reacher can handle anything. No, I refused to see the recent movie called Reacher (apparently a real bomb). The morons who cast Tom Cruise in the title role deserve to be bankrupt by now.
Delayed gratification is what built the middle class. (158)
Code Red heart attack:
Four minutes, he thought. That was the figure that came to him. He remembered his training. People drowning in ponds, kids choking on things, you get four minutes after the heart stops. He felt his life shrinking inward and upward, into his head. That's all he was now. A head. A Brain. Nothing else. That was all he ever had been. That was all any human ever was. ... There was no pain. Not anymore. He was a brain, unsupported. He had no body. Like science fiction. Like a man from Mars. A space alien. He could still see. But his vision was dimming at the edges. Like an old TV. That's how it was going to happen. He understood. Finally. A question, answered. A mystery, solved. He was going to switch off like an old black-and-white TV, collapsing to a tiny spot of light that burned bright in the center of the screen, before dimming and then disappearing forever. (222)