Author Joseph Kanon (Los Alamos) has a unique talent for freeze-framing a moment in time, one that has often been overlooked even by history buffs. His thriller, The Good German, is set in a tiny crack of Berlin's history, somewhere between Hitler's defeat and the beginning of the Cold War. The Allied occupation is in full swing, and the survivors of this devastated, moonscaped city are scrambling for food, clothing and shelter. Crime and the black market are means of survival for some and for others a way to make serious cash. Refugees own almost nothing, carrying only emotional scars from the total destruction of their homes. And children, many orphaned, panic at the sight of a uniform, any uniform. Nicht gut.
This gritty stage is the perfect backdrop for Kanon's character, Jake Geismar, who was a CBS correspondent in Berlin years earlier. Now he has finagled a press pass to go back and cover "the last big story of the war," the Potsdam Conference. But his passion to cover the event is a little too blaring to his longtime coworker, Hal Reidy, who sees through all the enthusiasm. "You think she's still there," he chides Jake.
But when Jake returns to Germany, he becomes involved in much more than simply looking up an old girlfriend and covering a story with a few well-written articles. What appears to be a city infested with postwar politics (and an ignored American G.I.'s murder) turns out to be a new battleground emerging from the ash, a tug-of-war between the American military and the Russians over German rocket scientists with knowledge both sides fear the other will nab first. Enter Lena, Jake's love interest, who has experienced firsthand some of the worst violence and suffering WWII had to offer, but who turns out to be an equally strong character, playing her part in the twists and turns of Kanon's labyrinth of a tale.
During their days in postwar Berlin, we see Jake and Lena make some hard moral choices that are particularly relevant to our lives today. The Good German is not just the war story of two lovers. It's a portrait of people at their finest when things are at their worst. Danke, Herr Kanon. We historical thriller readers salute you.
Dee Ann Grand is a children's book author and publishing executive.