And it ends on just the right note. A melancholy note that suits the sadness I found brewing and building throughout the novel.
One of the things that adds to the novel's power, I think, is the lacuna in the middle: 20 years between the time we leave our hard-boiled noir hero, Bernie Gunther, in Nazi Germany in 1934 and the time we suddenly see him again, calling himself Carlos Hausner, a German Argentinian businessman working a deal in 1954 Havana.
The fact that Gunther doesn't tell you much of what happened during the intervening years leaves much to the imagination, and suggests that what he did and saw was too terrible to repeat. (There are actually other Bernie Gunther mysteries that do fill in some of this time period, but the not knowing has a power of its own.) Of course, some of the things he does let you see are truly terrible.
He's a pithy observer, is Gunther, and Philip Kerr's prose is smooth and precise. Gunther cracks wise and you can hear the wisdom in it. It's also eye-opening to hear from the point of view of a German, an outsider to the Nazi party he despises while despised by the Allies who make assumptions about his background and motivations. It allows him to tell the reader things like this:
I was fresh out of insightful incidents of my own, so I stayed silent. Besides, I didn't have a particularly warm opinion of Americans myself. They weren't as bad as the Russians or the French, but then they didn't expect to be liked and they didn't much care when they weren't. Americans were different: even after they'd dropped a couple of atom bombs on the Japs, they still wanted to be liked. Which struck me as just a little naive. So I stayed silent and, almost like two old friends, together we enjoyed the view from the rooftop for a while.
The plot is satisfying, the prose is wonderful, the historical setting is detailed and informative, the characters are rich and well-realized. What can I say? It's a really good book: good the way a good meal is good. Not light, not necessarily easy. It follows all the conventions of the hard-boiled detective novel, but it does so in the way that, say, Thomas Keller would make a steak. I'm glad I got to savor it.