The central character in The Cleaner is a cleaning lady, Judith Kepler, who is like no cleaner you have ever met.
German readers have appreciated Elisabeth Herrmann’s award-winning crime fiction since she published her first thriller five years ago. English readers can now enjoy her latest novel thanks to an excellent translation by Bradley Schmidt – an American translator based in Leipzig who has expertly retained the high quality of writing, ensuring that this book can be enjoyed both as the spy thriller it is and for the beauty of the language used in the story-telling.
The central character in The Cleaner is a cleaning lady, Judith Kepler, who is like no cleaner you have ever met. She works for the gruff but kindhearted Klaus Dombrowski, owner of Dombrowski Facility Management. Unfazed by blood, putrefaction or vermin, Kepler’s job is to clean up following a messy murder or unusual death. So while Dombrowski supplies the equipment, Kepler contributes the stamina to clean any mess, however horrendous, leaving the area ready for a coat of paint and the next inhabitant.
Kepler is smart, persistent and somewhat obstinate. She is tough. Her toughness springs in part from her ten-year-long upbringing in the Yuri Gagarin Children’s Home starting from 1985, when the Stasi were still very much in control of East Germany. The description of the unspeakable regime of that children’s home is a masterpiece of understated writing. Any graduate from that institution comes out damaged and Kepler is no exception. She has lived on the streets and is a reformed drug addict.
So when Kepler crosses the path of another former inmate she sets out on a hazardous quest to uncover her past. What she finds arouses the interest of former Stasi operatives and the secret services of a number of nations.
As the story unfolds the reader is at times brought back to the chilling environment of the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) and its Stasi operatives whose jobs included spying on its own population using informants, bribery and intimidation. Elisabeth Herrmann accurately portrays that world as Judith Kepler starts unravelling the mystery of her past. That past has repercussions in the world of today in which some perpetrators of the evils under the DDR regime desperately try to cover the tracks that Kepler uncovers, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes with an instinct to go for the jugular. As the past catches up with the present former and current spies get more and more deeply involved.
This is also a story of friendships and loyalty and some unusual relationships, not least that of Dombrowski and Kepler. When Dombrowski receives an unwanted huge bunch of roses from an unknown source Kepler says to him, ‘Take them to your wife…’ and he answers ‘Am I crazy? I’m not even capable of getting in so much trouble that she’d accept them’.
Above all this is an action-packed and complex spy thriller although at times that very complexity is a challenge for the reader. And while Keppler had an unlucky past her many escapes from tight situations make her a formidable and lucky survivor.
By Elisabeth Herrmann
Allen & Unwin, Paperback, 464pp
First published on
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- Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
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- One star: Awful, to be avoided
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