What would German Literature month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, be without a German crime novel? I had several choices on hand. Thought about The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach. Almost picked up Therapy by Sebastian Fitzek but finally settled on Brenner and God by Wolf Haas–although its terrible titles did it no favours.
At just over 200 pages, Brenner and God, translated by Annie Janusch, one of the Melville International Crime titles, is a fairly quick read. For about the first 80 pages or so, I really enjoyed the book–liked its humor and enjoyed its main character, Simon Brenner, but then about 40% through the book, the narrative style began to get on my nerves. More of that later.
The book begins with Simon Brenner, a former policeman and now a much tamer, milder, and medicated Brenner employed as a chauffeur for the very wealthy Kressdorf family. Herr Kressdorf, “lion of construction,” is based in Munich, while Frau Kressdorf works in an OBGYN clinic in Vienna. Mostly Brenner drives their 2-year-old child, Helena Kressdorf back and forth. Brenner has become a bit dotty about the child, so he enjoys his salary as well as the plush apartment that comes with the job.
The action begins shortly after the novel begins. Breaking his usual habits, Brenner stops at the petrol station to fill up the BMW and leaves the little girl locked inside. When he returns, after dawdling over the choice of a forbidden chocolate bar for Helena, Brenner is stunned to find that the child is gone. Although the station had a surveillance camera, the BMW just happened to be parked out of sight of the cameras. To make matters worse, either due to a state of shock, or that his reactions are impacted by his mood-altering prescription drugs, Brenner doesn’t immediately call the police. Given the overwhelmingly suspicious circumstances of Helena’s disappearance, it’s no surprise that a freshly unemployed Brenner finds himself as a suspect.
But let’s not forget that Helena’s mother, a doctor, performs abortions, and the clinic at which she works is under constant protest from a group of fanatics led by the charismatic Knoll. Knoll recently made some particularly nasty veiled threats that “the good lord, from whom she had taken so many children, might take her child away, too some day.”
Since Brenner feels responsible for Helena’s disappearance, he decides to investigate the crime himself and, of course, gets into all sorts of messes.
So much for the plot. Now for style. At first I really enjoyed the author’s style, plus Brenner is not a run-of-the-mill character by any means.
My grandmother used to say to me, when you die, they’re gonna give that mouth of yours its own funeral. So, you see a person can change. Because today I am the epitome of silence. And it’d take something out of the ordinary to get me started. The days when everything used to set me off are over. Listen, why should every bloodbath wind up in my pint of beer? Like I’ve been saying for some time now, it’s up to the boys to take care of. My motto, as it were.
Chatty, personal, with the beginnings of a well-defined character there. But the problems emerged, at least for this reader, in the increasingly intrusive narrative voice. The narrative style overwhelmed the mystery at times, and so while Brenner begins his own investigation into Helena’s disappear, the smartass narrative voice holds sway:
One thing I’ve never liked about the human brain: that in the most dangerous situations, it often attaches importance to the silliest little things. So it bothers you that the executioner uses a bad aftershave, it bothers you that the doctor pronounces your throat cancer with s rolled R, and it bothers you you can’t claim your wedding ring as a tax deduction. And believe it or not, it was bothering Brenner now that he should have to slip into a hunting ensemble while Kressdorf nagged him.
These sorts of asides might be ok in small doses, but since they appear frequently in this already slim novel, the narrative voice bogs the plot down. Perhaps it’s a matter of taste, but for this reader, the style, which verges on patronising, became very annoying. At other points, the narrator seems to be addressing “my dear Swan,” so I suppose that’s who he’s telling the story to. Just in case our minds begin to wander with the many digressions, at other times we are yanked back in–by the narrator again with admonitions to “pay attention.” I wanted to respond with “well then shut up and get on with the story, damn it.” I really liked the flawed all-too-human character of Brenner, but the intrusive narrative style grated on my nerves. I’d hazard a guess that the narrative intrusions picked up as the novel wore on, but that might be an incorrect perception, and it may be true that the narrative simply obfuscated the crime solution. I’m sure that other readers would react differently, and for the first 80 pages or so I really enjoyed myself. Would I try another? Probably.