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)
Length 458 pages
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy borrowed (library)