Review: THE CLEANER by Elisabeth Herrmann

I’m prepared to wager a small sum that whoever wrote back cover blurb hasn’t actually read THE CLEANER. Or maybe I’d lose my bet on a technicality because they did read the book but thought it was too difficult to summarise so they wrote a blurb for a different book. Happily for me I rely on trusted sources such as Mrs Peabody Investigates for my book recommendations so idiotically inaccurate blurbs trouble me not. The blurb does get one thing right: the book’s central character, Judith Kepler, is an ‘extreme’ kind of cleaner working for a company that does the dirtiest sorts of jobs. But from then on the book and its blurb part ways.

On one such job – where a woman has been bloodily murdered in her German apartment – Judith is calmly going about her gruesome but necessary business when she encounters a reference to her own past. A past that haunts her not only because of what she can remember of it but also because of the portions that are lost to her. Most of which happened before she was five. In much the same way as she tackles her work – with determination and more than the average amount of willingness to persevere at all costs (or what others might call stubbornness) – Judith takes a detour from her carefully constructed day-to-day life in an effort to learn more about the bits of her past that have been kept secret from her. The fact that she spent 10 years in the Yuri Gagarian Children’s Home in the former East Germany is worrying enough but, as she learns, Judith was no ordinary orphan.

The book then is mostly a tale of espionage past and present, though more le Carré than Fleming on the high-tech gadgets scale if that matters to you. I must admit to getting lost a couple of times in the intricacies of German politics pre and post reunification but that is undoubtedly more my fault than the author’s or translator’s. But even if some of the plot nuances were lost to me I could not help but be swept along by the book’s very real tension. Many present-day and former intelligence agents from several countries are heavily invested in ensuring that the secrets surrounding Judith’s early childhood are not revealed and they fight dirty. Even though I wanted Judith to prevail over them I like the way that Herrmann has made these characters at least partially sympathetic – even when their present-day actions are unpleasant – by showing that for the most part they were behaving as necessary for their time. The book plays with the elasticity of the definitions of good and evil a little more than the standard thriller would do.

Judith does stumble across one person who’s on her side, though it takes her a while to recognise it. Quirin Kaiserley is a former agent who has been disgraced due to his claims that there are rotten secrets from East Germany’s past which should be revealed. Without physical proof of his claims he has become something of a pariah among the people who were once his associates, though he can still attract a fraction of loyalty from a few. He was involved in the events surrounding Judith in the 1980’s but even he doesn’t know the full story so he is almost as keen as Judith is to get to the bottom of things. Both characters are very well drawn and their relationship is a pleasure to watch unfold as it has almost as many twists and turns as the plot itself.

THE CLEANER is an intelligent, thought-provoking and occasionally funny book with two great heroic characters. The reader is kept in a constant state of tension not only because of the excellent but often frightening plot but also due to the need to pay careful attention to everything being said and done so that we can work out who to believe at any point.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Bradley Schmidt
Publisher This edition Manilla Publishing 2017 (original German edition 2011)
ISBN 9781786580207
Length 458 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy borrowed (library)

This entry was posted in book review, Elisabeth Herrmann, Germany. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Review: THE CLEANER by Elisabeth Herrmann

  1. Robin Rowlands says:

    So grateful for the link to Mrs Peabody’s – what a great site! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anonymous says:

    Bernadette: Please forgive me. I chuckled aloud at your blurb rant. It reminded of a couple of Margot Kinberg’s brilliant fun posts satirizing blurbs. I avoid blurbs like they were the Black Death. Too much information or misleading information or just plain irritating information fills back covers. Louise Penny has solved the problem by having portraits of herself occupy the whole back cover of her recent Armand Gamache books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No forgiveness required for chuckling at my rant…it’s expected. I only read the blurbs when I’m finished the books for the same reasons as you. I commented in this case because I read several reviews which griped about how the book wasn’t as expected based on the blurb

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  3. Very glad you enjoyed this, Bernadette. I read about this one on Mrs. P.’s site, too, and thought it sounded good. I do like the context, and Judith sounds like a well-crafted character.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. realthog says:

    Sounds tremendous! Of course, our library system doesn’t have it . . . it not being by Danielle Steel or James Patterson.

    Liked by 1 person

    • How sad. I am eternally grateful for our local library system, through which I can borrow any book held by any public library in the state. Over the years I have worked out there are some eclectic librarians scattered around, often in small country towns as many of my ‘holds’ come from the same few places.

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      • realthog says:

        It’s similar here: through the magic of the intertubes, I can borrow any library held in my county of New Jersey, which may well be comparable in population to your state (I can’t recall which state you’re in!). I can understand the librarians feeling they have to cope for people who have to be coaxed into book reading, and I admire them for making the effort. At the same time it’s often a bit frustrating.

        If I fill in a complicated form, I can attempt to get books from outside the county/state. The trouble is, the librarians refuse even to attempt to get certain classes of books, which includes the entire Locked Room International list (“They’re Amazon CreateSpace crap!”) plus a bunch of other small-press crime imprints. Did I mention frustration?

        It gets maddening. Right now it seems Oz is producing wonderful stuff that’s getting into the UK but not, it seems, into the US — at least so far as a parochial library system is concerned. Translated novels have a good chance if they’re Scandi, a moderate chance if they’re French or Japanese, a mediocre chance if they’re German, and that’s about it. You have no idea how jealous I am of Oz and the UK!

        Sorry: ranting. Blame a late night and red wine.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh feel free to rant away. I guess because we have always had to import 95% of our culture – or assumed we had to due to our national belief that the only thing we are good at is sport – we have continued to do so even though our writers and film makers and so on are going gangbusters. I suppose America has never ‘had’ to rely on outsiders for anything much at all so it doesn’t come naturally.

          At least you have red wine 🙂

          Oh and I am in South Australia – population about 1.5 million, not many of whom like to read obscure crime fiction it seems so I am generally pretty lucky in getting my hands on things I hear about out here in the blogosphere.

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          • realthog says:

            At least you have red wine

            Oh, c’mon! Oz red wine can be pretty damn’ fine! Back when I lived in the UK we had great respect for it. And here in NJ there’s available the Little Penguin range (whose Shiraz I love, much less so all the rest) and a couple of others.

            We have (correction: I have) wandered off-topic. Apologies.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Oh you are right – we have great wine of all colours – but I was thinking that things could be worse for you – you might have no access to the books you want AND no red wine. I had a friend who did a nursing stint in Saudi Arabia – by all accounts that was pretty bleak as far as both books and wine went, even inside the ex-pat/westerner zone.

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  5. Kathy D. says:

    Sounds good, but very intense. Do I want that right now? So much political stuff in the news so I’m trying to distract and entertain myself. Will keep this in mind as your and Mrs. Peabody’s recommendations are always good ones.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. kathy d. says:

    I read an Andy Carpenter light very funny mystery by David Rosenfelt; his two dogs are fun, too. And then I am reading a hilarious book about Rosenfelt and his spouse, Debby Meyers, doing dog rescues and then traveling across country with 25 dogs and 11 people to move from California to Maine. His sense of humor is perfect. I am laughing out loud. It’s “Dogtripping,” and a true travelogue.

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