Category Archives: Fiction

Thumbprint: Friedrich Glauser (1936)

“Everyone is at least half mad and any investigation has to take that into account.”

German 2015I’ve had a handful of Friedrich Glauser novels on my bookshelf for some time, and German Literature Month was the perfect time to blast off with the first book from the series featuring Sergeant Studer: Thumbprint. My copy, from Bitter Lemon Press, has a short biographical paragraph about the author and an excerpt from a letter written by the author in 1937. Glauser, a morphine and opium addict, was born in Vienna in 1896. He served in the Foreign Legion (there’s a Foreign Legion novel apparently that I would love to read,) was sent to prison and spent years in psychiatric wards and insane asylums. He died of a stroke in 1938 at the age of 42. He left behind a body of work that includes 5 Sergeant Studer novels which are all set in the 30s. Given Glauser’s history, I knew I had to read his work.

Thumbprint begins with Sergeant Studer discovering that the man he has just arrested for murder, an ex-con named Erwin Schlumpf, has attempted suicide in his cell. Studer, acting on intuition, returns to Schlumpf’s cell and resuscitates him–perhaps it’s this act which sparks Studer’s determination to discover the truth behind the crime Schlumpf is accused of. It seems to be an open-and-shut case, and while all those involved in the judicial machinery are happy to close the books on this murder, Studer isn’t satisfied that Schlumpf is guilty. Schlumpf is accused of laying in wait for salesman, Witschi, robbing him and committing murder in the process. It doesn’t help Schlumpf’s case that he was seen later that night at a tavern spending a large amount of money….

ThumbprintThis first chapter which opens with Schlumpf’s attempted suicide is called: “A Man Has Decided to Call it a Day,” and that should give you an idea of the type of humour here. One of the best aspects of this police procedural is the main character, Studer. He’s odd and unconventional. When he travels to the country village of Gerzenstein to investigate the murder which is supposedly already solved, Studer senses that the village is a close knit community full of secrets and lies. Studer has far better relationships with all the ex-cons employed in a local nursery than the so-called respectable, upstanding citizens of Gerzenstein. There’s a lot that’s odd about the case. The accused killer, for example, is in love with the victim’s daughter, and the victim who’d dabbled in various investment scams was heavily in debt. Why aren’t the victim’s son and wife mourning? And what about the insurance policy on the victim’s life? Why are the ex-cons hired by the nursery owner willing to help while the locals give Studer the cold shoulder?

While Studer is an unconventional, outwardly unimpressive detective, obviously favouring the underdog, Studer can also be his own worst enemy. After saving Schlumpf, he begins questioning the magistrate in charge of the case, and manages to move the magistrate from a stubborn, snotty lack of cooperation to impressing the magistrate into listening about the holes in the case against Schlumpf. This is all achieved by Studer’s understanding of human nature and adjusting his attitude in order to get under someone’s skin.

The examining magistrate broke off, though he couldn’t have said why himself. The man on the chair before him was a detective, a simple policeman. He was middle-aged and there was nothing special about him: a shirt with a soft collar, a grey suit that had gone slightly baggy in places because the body inside it was fat. He had a thin, pale face with a moustache covering his mouth so that you didn’t know whether he was smiling or not. And this simple policeman was sitting there in the chair, legs apart, forearms resting on his thighs, hands clasped …

The magistrate himself couldn’t have said why he suddenly adopted a slighty warmer tone.

“You must realize, Sergeant, that it looks to me as if you’ve exceeded your authority.” Studer nodded and nodded. Of course, his authority! “You handed over this Erwin Schlumpf to the prison officer, all according to regulation. What reason did you have for going back to see him again? Your return, I have to admit, was highly opportune, but that is not to say that it is covered by police authority. You have been with the force long enough Sergeant, to know that productive collaboration between the various branches of the legal system is only possible if each ensures to stay strictly within the limits of its own authority …”

That word: authority. Not just once, no, three times. Now Studer knew where he stood. That’s a piece of luck, he thought, they’re not the worst, the ones who keep going on about their “authority”. You just have to be nice to them and let them see you take them seriously and you will have them eating out of your hand.

That’s a really long quote, but it gives a sense of the author’s style but more importantly, it gives a strong presentation of Studer’s character. He can read people–the problem is, however, that while his readings are accurate, he can’t keep in the appropriate role, in this case, of obsequiousness. He’s too sincere, too intense a thinker, so while he adopts the appropriate role, he always slips out of his contrived character when he starts thinking.

Thumbprint is at its best in its emphasis on the psychological aspects of the case and in the character of Studer, a man who’s both endearing and admirable. On the down side, too much of the solution piles up in the last few pages, but I enjoyed this enough to commit to the rest of this unique series.

Translated by Mike Mitchell.


Filed under Fiction, Glauser Friedrich

The Poggenpuhl Family: Theodor Fontane

German 2015

Back to German Literature Month and another novella from Theodor Fontane. This time it’s The Poggenpuhl Family, the story of an aristocratic Berlin family fallen on hard times after Major von Poggenpuhl died an “honorable death” in battle. The family, the major’s widow and five children live in an “aura of expiring grandeurexpiring but nevertheless bearing witness to past glories.” Most of those ‘past glories’ linger in the military reputation of the dead Poggenpuhl males, so it’s no surprise that a huge portrait of an ancestor, a long-dead military hero takes pride of place in the parlour.

a woman taken in adulteryThe widow Poggenpuhl and her three daughters lead a life of stringent poverty while any resources squeezed from their penury is directed towards the two sons, both military officers. A familiar story of course, since the hopes of a shift in the family’s fortunes reside in the males. The girls might marry (Melanie de Caparoux married well in The Woman Taken in Adultery,) but that seems unlikely–at least for the eldest, Therese, who is thirty years old. The two youngest girls, Sophie and Manon, have adjusted to their lowly status or as Fontane says they have “adapted themselves to their condition and to the modern world and they worked as a team.”

Therese, already thirty, might seem somewhat unpractical at first sight, and that is what she was often taken to be. The only art she appeared to have learned was that of reclining gracefully in a rocking chair. But she was really just as capable as her two younger sisters; it was only that she labored in a different vineyard. Because of her particular character, she was convinced that the task of upholding high the Poggenpuhl banner had fallen to her, and it was her duty to take her place more deliberately than her sisters cared to in the world to which they rightfully belonged. So she was at home in the families of generals and ministers of state in the Behren-and Wilhemstrasse; their tea tables never failed to resound with approval and applause when she gave one of her maliciously humorous accounts of her younger sisters and their adventures in the “would-be-aristocracy.”

Sophie, the middle sister, is immensely talented–as talented with art as she is in the kitchen. Manon, at seventeen, is popular and she has made a point of befriending the families of bankers. Manon always offers the services of Sophie for a range of tasks, and consequently the widow’s tiny pension is supplemented by the crumbs of the “would-be-aristocracy.” Fontane shows how the two younger sisters have adapted to their new social and financial reality. Manon was born after her father’s death, so she knows no other life than that of poverty. All three sisters reflect the phases of the family’s fortunes with Therese, who remembers better times, hanging onto that place in society while her two younger sisters navigate social roles Therese rejects.

The novella centres on the birthday of the widow Poggenpuhl; her eldest son, the eminently responsible Wendelin, sends his younger sibling, Leo, home to celebrate. Leo finds his lack of financial resources difficult to bear. He’s the type of young officer who wants to cut a dash but lacks the funds to do so. At several points in the story, the Poggenpuhls’ ancient servant offers food to Leo–it’s always meagre leftovers and Leo, a young man with a ravenous appetite, either never quite gets or chooses to ignore his mother’s situation. Yes, he’s told what food is available in an either-or way and he always polishes off the lot.

The family’s hopes, then, reside in the military careers of the two sons, but then there’s also an uncle who’s married a rich widow. Uncle Poggenpuhl is a good-hearted man who’d clearly like to do more for his brother’s family, but his wife holds the purse strings. Plus then there’s no love lost between Uncle Poggenpuhl’s wife and her in-laws. She may have money but she’s middle-class.

Class plays a huge role in this novella with the widow Poggenpuhl desperately hanging onto the grandeur of the family name while covering her poverty in a way that fools no one. Uncle Poggenpuhl married out of his class, and that has created an awkward situation even though at the same time this alliance proves to be fortuitous.

The Poggenpuhl Family, IMO, is a better novella than The Woman Taken in Adultery. Although the scenario of the family living in poverty while keeping their pride is familiar, Fontane added some very nice touches here–especially in the way he showed how the youngest two girls adapted while the eldest did not.

Translated by Gabriele Annan.


Filed under Fiction, Fontane Theodor

The Murder of Halland: Pia Juul

To describe Danish author’s Pia Juul’s novel, The Murder of Halland as crime fiction would not only be inaccurate, but would also potentially disappoint any readers, so instead I’ll say the book is about a woman whose life is instantly changed when crime takes place. The novel opens with Bess, the slippery narrator, describing the last night spent with her much older partner, Halland. She stays up to write while Halland goes to bed, and then she falls asleep on the sofa.

When I opened my eyes again, I knew a sound had woken me, but I had no idea what sound. An echo reverberated inside me. I sat up and ran my fingers through my hair the way they do in films. I pulled myself together again and clutched the blanket around my knees. Was I afraid? I don’t think so. That would have been psychic, insane almost. Though I remember thinking something wasn’t quite right. Had I merely heard the door closing behind Halland?

I’m not giving away spoilers to say that Halland has been murdered–shot to death by an unidentified killer. In the confusion immediately following the crime, Bess finds herself accused of murder, and the fact that as Halland lay dying he apparently says “my wife shot me,” doesn’t help. But Bess is quickly eliminated as a suspect, and while the investigation continues almost silently in the background, Bess finds herself immersed in questions and regrets about her past.

The murder of hallandThe narrative constructed by Bess defies genre conventions, so while the investigation occasionally rolls up to Bess’s front door, she does not follow its progress. It’s not so much that she’s disinterested (although it would be easy to come to this conclusion) as much as she’s distracted.

Gazing at me with pity, the policeman spoke, but I didn’t understand a word. I didn’t grasp that they wanted an explanation. The thought that I was somehow involved didn’t occur to me. I didn’t realize that they were trying to find out whether I could have shot Halland. They didn’t actually say so much, so I’m just guessing. But obviously they were waiting for me to say something. What I eventually said was, ‘Can I see him again?’

I could, but later.

There are a couple of references to life as we see it in films; at one point, for example, Bess says that Halland had no enemies, and that “enemies only existed in film.” If this were a film, following genre expectations, Bess would become the plucky investigator, but here, after Halland’s death, events have an almost surreal quality for Bess–this isn’t shown in the author’s style as much as Bess’s disconnectedness. This can’t be happening to her; these things don’t happen to ordinary people who lead ordinary lives.

There’s something I haven’t mentioned. Actually, there’s a great deal I haven’t mentioned. How could I possibly include everything? Nonetheless, there is something I haven’t mentioned which I must have left out on purpose. I wonder, too, if my claim that my mind ran on two parallel tracks proved a poor excuse. Doesn’t that apply to everyone? Doesn’t everyone look back with bewilderment on what they’ve said and done? Awful things happen, and afterwards you shake your head and would so much like to know why you did one thing rather than another.

While Bess could be thinking about who murdered Halland, instead she finds herself obsessing about her daughter, Abby, a child she abandoned when she left her husband, Troels, ten years earlier and moved in with Halland.

I had led a good life with Abby and her father. A normal, everyday life full of joy, sex, laughter, boredom, drudgery, acrimony and minor arguments. My husband took a sabbatical from his teaching job to go to some courses. He travelled a lot that year. I met Halland. If the five-minute encounter in a bookshop could have been avoided, everything would have worked out differently.

It’s clear from the narrative that Halland is/was famous, but this is never explored–as if Bess expects us to know the facts. We also begin to gather the idea that Bess’s relationship with Halland has turned out to be a disappointment. A year into the new relationship, Halland became ill, and Bess and Halland never quite gelled as a couple.

In the middle of this crisis, three people emerge on the scene: Bess’s daughter Abby arrives from England with ten years of resentments, Bess’s ex shows up wanting to renew their relationship,  but the most unexpected arrival is Pernille, a young woman claiming to be Halland’s niece. There’s also no small amount of guilt launched long-distance at Bess by her mother. So eventually we see Bess sandwiched between two resentful generations and we can extend that to a dying grandfather who “had shunned” her ten years earlier after she left Troels. As the story progresses, while Halland’s murder is always in the background, the lid peels back on Bess’s troubled relationships. Life with Halland, although it began with passion, ended with a whimper.

Reading a blurb of the book, I expected crime fiction, but The Murder of Halland is something quite different. I found myself with genre expectations willing the novel to move in another direction. I had to wrestle with, and overcome, these genre expectations–a strange sensation which makes one question the well-worn furrows books fall into. While a crime occurs, the plot concentrates, not on detection, but on the post-crime meltdown of a woman’s life–a meditation of choices made and regrets endured.

Review copy. Translated by Martin Aitken


Filed under Fiction, Juul Pia

The Woman Taken in Adultery: Theodor Fontane

“She’s got a bit of Geneva chic. But what does it all add up to? Everything from Geneva is secondhand for a start.”

Back to German Literature Month and this time it’s a novella from Theodor Fontane (1819-1898). Fontane’s most famous work is arguably Effi Briest, and The Woman Taken in Adultery, an earlier work, is another tale on the same theme: an unhappy marriage and infidelity. The book’s back cover states that the book is “remarkable” for its portrayal of adultery with a “happy ending.” Compared to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, well yes, the book has a “happy ending,” and yet somehow the conclusion wasn’t as ‘happy’ as I expected.

a woman taken in adulteryUnder scrutiny here is the marriage between financier van der Straaten and his much younger, charming wife, Melanie. It’s Berlin in the 1880s and the van der Straatens, parents of two girls, have been married now for ten years. Before marriage, Melanie was a Caparoux or de Caparoux (depending on who you’re talking to), the daughter of French-Swiss nobility, and although her childhood was wrapped in privilege, her father, a consul-general died young and left only debts behind. As a penniless 17-year-old, she married 42 year-old van der Straaten. Very early in the story, we get a sense of van der Straatan’s temperament; he “oscillated between the earthy and the sentimental, between one extreme and another.” Melanie ‘manages’ her husband, flattering him, and she “played with the man whose plaything she appeared and pretended to be.”  She loves spending time alone in the country villa as “her supremacy depended on self-control, and to be free of this restraint was her constant secret desire.”

Van der Straaten is an extremely wealthy man but he’s a problem when it comes to society: “he had been too little in the world and had failed to acquire a generally acceptable degree of polish or even a bearing suitable to his position.” In chapter one, we’re told that van der Straaten is frequently asked if he’s related to a famous actor who has a similar name. These days, there’s a good implication to being asked if you’re related to an actor–but in 19th century Germany…. the question is loaded with social snobbery. This theme, that van der Straaten, although good-natured, doesn’t quite ‘fit’ into society, continues, and as the story develops, we see that the financier’s behaviour pains his wife, Melanie. Trouble appears in the marriage when van der Straatan insists that Rubehn, a former cavalry officer, soon-to-be apprentice, take up residence in his home.

There’s a dinner party scene in which van der Straaten dominates his guests and while the scene itself was rather tedious, it’s the after-dinner conversations that spark interest as the departing guests share their opinions of the van der Straatans’ marriage. Some of the guests have sympathy for Melanie van der Straaten and consider that she, an elegant woman of refined sensibilities, is wasted on her husband. Others don’t share that opinion and consider that Melanie’s impoverished family have no bragging rights.  Melanie’s brother-in-law, Major Gryczinski, married to Melanie’s younger sister, Jacobine de Caparoux, has his own opinion:

When they were in the middle of the brightly lit square, the lovely young woman nestled fondly against her husband and said, “what a day that was, Otto, I did admire you.”

“It wasn’t as hard for me as you think. I just play with him. He’s just an old child.”

“And Melanie! She feels it, you know. And I’m sorry for her. You’re smiling? Aren’t you sorry for her?”

“Yes and no, ma chère. Nothing in the world comes free. She has her summer villa and her picture gallery.”

“Which she doesn’t care for. You know how little it means to her.”

“And she has two charming children…”

“For which I almost envy her.”

“There you are,” laughed the major. “We all have to learn the art of making do with what we have. If I were my brother-in-law, I should say…”

But she closed his mouth with a kiss, and the next moment the carriage drew to a halt.

It would seem that Jacobine and Major Gryczinski married for love, but another guest speculates that the Major selected his wife on the basis that he would acquire a useful, extremely wealthy brother-in-law. But regardless of speculation, Melanie’s marriage to van der Straaten had to be an advantageous move for her younger sister. Would the major have married Jacobine if she didn’t have this advantageous, powerful connection? Would Jacobine even have been in society if Melanie hadn’t made a great match? These questions linger, unspoken, underneath the Gryczinskis’ criticisms.

Fontane initially “rejected the title as too aggressively moralistic,” but the title (based on a real life incident) works rather interestingly with the plot’s argument against moral judgment. The title also highlights an early scene in the story when van der Straaten, fascinated by a Tintoretto painting, acquires a copy. Van der Straaten’s later behaviour, in the face of his wife’s affair,  illustrates that he’s a decent, good-hearted man–not someone who passes moral judgment–even when he suffers. Looked down upon by the fussy, snobby society forced to accept him because of his financial standing, he’s a much better person than those who patronize him behind his back.  The Woman Taken in Adultery, IMO, is not as good as Effi Briest. Melanie van der Straaten’s marriage isn’t miserable enough, and the love affair isn’t charismatic enough to rouse much emotional investment, but it is an unusual tale of adultery when compared to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. There’s very little moral judgment here–and most of the moral judgment within these pages comes from Melanie van der Straaten’s eldest daughter–a sensitive girl who sees that Rubehn is a threat immediately.

Translated by Gabriele Annan


Filed under Fiction, Fontane Theodor

Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz: Maxim Biller

German 2015

Back to German Literature Month, and this time it’s a modern German novella inspired by the life of Bruno Schultz: Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz by Maxim Biller.  Bruno Schultz, a polish writer, critic, teacher and illustrator was murdered in 1942 in the Drohobycz Ghetto. He had been commissioned by Nazi officer Felix Landau to paint a mural and in exchange Landau promised protection. Schultz was shot, according to many sources, by another Nazi officer, Karl Günther  in revenge for Landau killing Günther’s “personal Jew,” a dentist. So yet again another brilliant talent wiped off the face of the earth by the Nazis.  In spite of the fact that very little of his work survived (his final novel The Messiah is lost,) there’s a mythic quality to Bruno Schultz. Just check out the Wikipedia page to see how authors have integrated Schultz into their fiction. Biller’s novella is an imagined glimpse into Schultz’s life.

The book begins with Schultz frantically writing a letter to Thomas Mann:

“My highly esteemed, greatly respected, dear Herr Thomas Mann” wrote a small, thin, serious man slowly and carefully in his notebook, on a surprisingly warm autumn day in November 1938–

The letter, subject to multiple edits, is intended to warn Thomas Mann, currently in Switzerland, about an imposter who’s arrived in Drohobycz. In the letter Schultz admits to Mann that  “I cannot say with complete certainty that he is not you, but the stories he tells alone-not to mention his shabby clothes and his strong body odor-arouse my suspicions.” Right away there’s a sense of the absurd, of playfulness, but behind this there’s also a frantic plea and a fearful, neurotic quality to the letter writer. The imposter Thomas Mann is making a spectacle of himself at a local restaurant, seizing food in his hands and stuffing it into his mouth.  The imposter Thomas Mann is a sinister demonic character who plans to write a novella in which Jews are murdered by Christians:

“Well my friends, ” said the false stranger to us when he had finished, and was wiping tears of laughter from his eyes, “how do you like this story? How would you reply to the question of guilt that I am about to ask? I would say: if the Hebrews had never come to Drohobycz, that pointless and utterly destructive pogram would never have taken place, would it?” Then he beat a short but vigorous drum roll on the manager’s head with the palms of both hands.

In his letter, Schultz bemoans the fact he must teach “drawing to my beloved but totally untalented boys” at a high school, and it’s at this high school that Schultz is terrorized by a sturdy sports mistress, Helena, “small and athletic and with a hairy face like a clever female bonobo chimpanzee,” who aggressively harasses him about his next novel.

Bruno had really been hoping that no one in school would notice his absence particularly not pretty Helena, whose thick, blonde and often badly combed hair unfortunately gave off the pungent smell of an animal cage, a mixture of urine and damp hay that had been left lying around. Yesterday she had shut him up, for almost a whole hour’s lesson and without any light on, in the little room containing broken gymnastics equipment next to the sports hall. He didn’t know why, but probably because he had trembled even more than usual during their last conversation in a break period, and couldn’t be soothed even by the pressure of her short, but sharp and unfiled fingernails. So what? She shouldn’t have asked him to let her see at least a few pages of his novel, and he had been cold as well, in spite of the summery days that came like a gift in mid-November, and in spite of the fact that he was wearing his heavy jacket. When she finally let him out he was feeling much better, or so he told her at least, for fear of making her even angrier, and she promised to shut him up again sometime soon. Maybe, she added, she’d come into the little room with him herself for a while if he liked. She could go to one of the chaotic shops beyond the market place that opened only late in the evening for a few hours, sometimes not even that, and buy things she’d been wanting to try out with him for a long time he could guess what she meant! No, he had replied, he’d rather she didn’t, although he immediately felt very safe and well at the thought of those things–black leather Venetian Columbine masks stuffed with sawdust; penis-sized Pierrot made of willow rods, and Easter whips interwoven with thin steel chains; silver nipple clamps, and Japanese shunga candles (their dripping wax left no blisters on the skin).

Schultz lives with his sister, Hania, who’s in denial that her husband committed suicide by slitting his own throat ten years earlier. While Schultz writes in the basement, Hania, a Cassandra-like figure, tells him gossip about a man who “looked remarkably” like Bruno visiting a brothel and there he “examined the half-naked girls like a horse dealer, drank a lot of wine, and told dirty jokes.”

Inside the head of Bruno SchulzMaxim Biller’s Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz, in its blurring of reality and fantasy, mirrors Schultz’s own work, so it’s cleverly executed. Biller’s story itself blends fact with fiction, and it is a bit frustrating not to be able to peel the two apart, yet this dilemma is partially bolstered by Schultz’s life itself; even the story of Schultz’s death is subject to some debate.  What of the fictional imposter Schultz who manhandles women at a brothel? Is he real or imagined by Schultz’s sister? Is the imposter Thomas Mann just a figment of the fictional Bruno Schultz’s imagination? We cannot tell the ‘real’ or the imagined apart on so many levels in this novella.

Evidently Schultz did admire Thomas Mann and gave him the manuscript of his novella The Homecoming (1937), a work that is referred to in this story. The Homecoming is lost, and taking that loss into consideration, the letter Schultz writes in the book acquires a much deeper poignancy, and again a mythical quality. While Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz shows Schultz reaching, frantically, desperately, to the outside world represented by Thomas Mann, tragically while Mann did acquire Schultz’s sole work written in German, it is now lost. And that gives a sinister, surreal significance to the whole idea that a Thomas Mann imposter has taken up residence in Drohobycz, popping up a year after Schultz finished The Homecoming. Biller’s novella is set in 1938, and the Germans had yet to arrive in Drohobycz. The “alleged” demonic Thomas Mann appears to be a harbinger of the Nazis:

“You must write your novel. What is it to be called? The Messiah, am I right? To work, get down to work, and when you have finished those bandits will come from Berlin to your little town and burn you along with your wonderful manuscript. Too bad–it’s your own fault!’ He laughed, “terrific, what a subject! But who will write a novel about it where you are dead, Jew Schultz?”

This is another gorgeous little book from Pushkin Press, and it includes two stories from Bruno Schultz: Birds and Cinnamon Shops (translated from Polish by Celina Wieniewska.) Reading these stories and looking at Schultz’s art add a great deal to Biller’s novella.

The murals Schultz created for Landau were discovered in 2001. Here’s a link for those interested.

Review copy/own a copy.

Translated by Anthea Bell


Filed under Biller Maxim, Fiction

Ice Moon: Jan Costin Wagner

German 2015

For German Literature Month 2014 one of my selections (on a tip from Caroline) was Jan Costin Wagner’s fantastic crime novel Silence. There’s a film made of Silence btw, so if you’re not into reading crime, but you like watching crime, then the film comes highly recommended. Author Jan Costin Wagner is German and lives in both Germany and Finland with his Finnish wife. His crime series featuring detective Kemmo Joentaa is set in Finland but written in German. Since I enjoyed Silence so much, I decided to go back to the first book in the series: Ice Moon.

Ice Moon begins with the death of Joentaa’s wife from Hodgkin’s disease, and the book, a police procedural, follows two narrative arcs–the actions of a seemingly innocuous young man who is a serial killer, and the actions of Joentaa who’s hot on the killer’s trail. Sections in the chapters jump back and forth between focus, and sometimes, for a few sentences of this third person narrative, it’s impossible to clarify whose mind we are in: the killer’s or Joentaa’s. While I disliked the confusion, it’s a technique which reinforces the similarities between the killer and the man who is trying to capture him. The similarities are mindset connections and are also ways in which Joentaa understands the killer’s motivations. When the first body turns up–a woman killed in her bed, Joentaa’s short-tempered boss, Ketola, suspects the culprit is either a lover or a burglar. Joentaa is convinced that the murder isn’t random, and when a second corpse is discovered, Joentaa is certain they have a serial killer on their hands–Ketola thinks the two crimes are unrelated.

ice moonJoentaa’s wife, Sanna, dies on page one, but she appears throughout the book in her husband’s fluid memories. Joentaa, obviously, is severely depressed, and Ketola thinks Joentaa has no business returning to work. Work, however, for Joentaa, is a welcome distraction, and the business of death helps Joentaa connect to the killer’s mind. The killer is a very creepy human being, and because he seems so harmless, he’s also very dangerous.

We get a good look at a very troubled Ketola, that “model of self-discipline,” who’s retired in Silence, and frankly he’s the best character in the book.

Joentaa had always respected Ketola but never liked him. For a time he’d even considered putting in for a transfer, but Sanna had dissuaded him. His addiction to harmonious relations was almost unbearable, she said with a wry smile, but she couldn’t believe that anyone who had fought so hard to get into the CID would throw in the towel after a few harsh words from his boss. Although annoyed with her, Joentaa had known she was right.

Structurally the novel’s premise is problematic for the first in a series. Readers have no emotional investment in either Sanna or Joentaa, so we can’t really mourn along side of our main character. Sanna is dead on page one, and the mourning, the loss, the depression carries on throughout the novel. Sanna’s parents, deep in denial about their daughter’s health (aided and abetted by Joentaa’s poor communication with his in-laws), seem to be more stock characters than human beings. For this reader, killing off the spouse of a main character immediately on page one of the first book seems dicey. I’m thinking of Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford novels. Wexford’s sidekick, Mike Burden’s wife became ill and subsequently died well into the series. The news is broken gradually to the reader and the emotional investment in the characters, already well established, continued throughout the books.

I’m not an author; I’m a reader, and I found this novel problematic and rather depressing. When Ketola tells Joentaa he should stay home, I agreed. Joentaa is a mess. Sanna’s death overwhelms the crime section of the novel, and yet since these are new characters, it was impossible for this reader to catch the appropriate wave of concern. Ice Moon did not come close to the excellence of Silence. If I’d read Ice Moon first, I doubt I would have bothered with the rest of the series. The first book is often the weakest, often almost a throwaway when it comes to jumpstarting a series. Ice Moon sets up its series parameters: Joentaa is a lonely man, a widower who is committed to the region and to solving crime, but I found it hard to whip up much enthusiasm for the main character. The quality of Silence convinces me to continue the series in spite of being disappointed in this novel.

Translated by John Brownjohn


Filed under Fiction, Wagner Jan Costin

Anecdote from the Last Prussian War: Heinrich von Kleist

German 2015

For German Literature Month 2015, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, I decided to pick a range of works–even though I was sorely tempted to concentrate on crime. Here’s a very brief short story from Heinrich von Kleist: Anecdote from the Last Prussian War–literally an anecdote as the title suggests. It’s not quite 5 pages for the kindle, thoroughly enjoyable, very cinematic, and although brief, it was well worth the 99c asking price.

This tale is told by an innkeeper to a traveler passing through. The inn is located in a village near Jena, and the innkeeper recalls that the village, which had been occupied by the Prussians, was subsequently “completely abandoned by the army of Prince von Hohenlohe.”  When the Prussians leave, the village is “surrounded by the French,” when suddenly a reckless “single Prussian cavalryman” rides up to the inn, says he hasn’t “had a drop all day,”  and asks for brandy….

The story concludes this way: “I haven’t seen such a fellow, said the innkeeper, my entire life long.” Lord Cardigan, famous or infamous for promoting dash and daring behaviour (and a lot of other things) amongst his men, would have approved of this Prussian officer.

For German Literature Month 2014, one of my choices was Heinrich Mann’s short story, A Crime, available only for the kindle, from the same translator, Juan LePuen. Here we have two short stories written originally in German and available via the kindle for those of us who can’t read German, so the post not only celebrates German Literature Month and Heinrich von Kleist, but also the entrepreneurial enthusiastic efforts of translators who utilize the kindle.

For those interested, at the end of this short story, there’s a list of other translations available for the kindle from Fario Books.

Translated by Juan LePuen


Filed under Fiction, Von Kleist Heinrich

After the Circus: Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano’s moody novel, After the Circus is narrated by a much older man who recalls a mysterious time in Paris when he was eighteen years old. Many authors would have turned this tale into a predictable coming of age story, but Modiano’s novel remains a sad elegy to an all too brief, haunting time.

The novel begins with the narrator being questioned at police headquarters about his life and activities. Right away an air of confusion enters the narrative. The man who asks the questions names a café that the narrator is supposed to frequent, but he’s never been there. Does the interrogator have the wrong man?

Then he mentioned the names of a man and a woman and asked if I knew them. I answered no. He told me to think very carefully. If I didn’t tell the truth, there could be serious consequences. The threat was delivered in a calm, indifferent voice. No, really, I didn’t know those two individuals. He typed my answer, then handed me the sheet, at the bottom of which was written: “Seen and agreed to.” I didn’t bother looking over my deposition and signed with a ballpoint pen that was lying on the desk.

This sense of indifference and disconnection which begins immediately with this interview continues throughout the novel and permeates the story. The narrator asks why he’s been questioned and he’s told that “your name was in someone’s address book.” Again that vagueness which nonetheless determines the narrator’s fate–a randomness which, as it turns out, becomes a major incident in his life.

after the circusOn the way out of the office, the narrator spies a young woman in her twenties. She’s next to be interrogated, and the narrator makes the snap decision to wait for her in a nearby café. They meet and chat, and then she asks a “favor.”

At Place du Châtelet, she wanted to take the metro. It was rush hour. We stood squeezed together near the doors. At every station, the riders getting off pushed us onto the platform. Then we got back on with the new passengers. She leaned her head on my shoulder and said with a smile that “no one could find us in this crowd.”

At the Gare du Nord metro stop, we were carried along in the flood of travelers heading for the commuter trains. We crossed through the train station lobby, and in the checkroom she opened a  locker and pulled out a black leather suitcase.

I carried the suitcase, which was rather heavy. It occurred to me that it contained more than just clothes.

And so begins the mystery of Gisèle who soon moves into the narrator’s apartment. She proceeds to introduce the narrator to a stream of new acquaintances, and she begins gathering up a range of belongings which are scattered in various locations. As she takes the narrator through her circle, more questions emerge about Gisèle, and it becomes clear that she’s mixed up with some shady characters. But Gisèle isn’t the only mystery here. The narrator’s father has moved to Switzerland “to live out his days,” while the narrator’s father’s mysterious business associate, Grabley, is busy destroying papers relating to some peculiar shady business dealings. Grabley is considering dumping these files “down a manhole he’d spotted on Rue de l’Arcade.” All these trappings of mystery, disorientation, and flight yield the sense of flux, that time is running out.

After the Circus (and the meaning of the title is finally revealed) is a wonderfully atmospheric book. Don’t expect all the answers here, for the book mirrors life–everything is not tied off neatly. Instead this tale, which is told years later by a now middle-aged man, effectively recreates how things sometimes don’t make sense when we’re young. We don’t know the right questions to ask; our naiveté hobbles us. Now the narrator looks back at this period of his life, it’s too late to ask the questions that emerge in retrospect. Those with the answers are dead. The narrator doesn’t offer explanations to fill in the gaps. We can only speculate.

I was the traveler who boards a departing train and finds himself in the company of four strangers. And he wonders whether he hasn’t got on the wrong train. But no matter … In his compartment, the others start making conversation with him.

With its interrogations and hints that the narrator’s father lived a life that “in certain periods resembled a hunt in which he was the prey,” at first the story could seem to be set in WWII France and yet it’s not; it’s the sixties. This lack of firm grounding in time just adds to the mystery of Gisèle and her relationship with the young, impressionable and naïve narrator who is forever shaped by this brief time.

What I had lived through in my childhood and the few years following, up to my meeting Gisèle, gently peeled off of me in strips, dissolved; now and then, I even made a small efforts to retain a few scraps before they vanished into thin air.

This won’t be my last Modiano novel. Suggestions for another are welcome.

Review copy. Translated by Mark Polizzotti.



Filed under Fiction, Modiano Patrick

Dark Corners: Ruth Rendell

In common with many of this author’s other stand-alone novels of psychological suspense, Dark Corners traces the destructive connecting paths of a handful of characters. In this book, Rendell’s characters connect over a large house in Falcon Mews, Maida Vale inherited by 23-year-old writer, Carl Martin. Carl can’t believe his luck when he inherits the house; he’s just published his first crime book, Death’s Door, and hopes this is just the beginning of a long career. Renting out the top floor of the house, which is located in a very desirable area, will allow him to fund his life until his writing career takes off. Without much care, faced with twenty applicants, he accepts the very first one–Dermot, a rather unpleasant character who works at Sutherland Pet Clinic. Although Dermot seems to be the perfect tenant, quiet and single, Carl doesn’t particularly care for Dermot, but then he has no intention of being Dermot’s friend.

The plot thickens when Carl’s childhood friend, Stacey Warren, now a sitcom actress who has put on a lot of weight, begins complaining to Carl about her figure. Stacey, who has begun a cycle of eating to fill an emotional void, doesn’t want to “starve” herself and instead wants to try diet pills. As fate would have it, Carl has a stash at home:

For many years Wilfred Martin collected samples of alterative medicines, homeopathic remedies, and herbal pills. Most of them he never used, never even tried because he was afraid of them, but he kept the lot in a cupboard in a bathroom.

Carl never got around to throwing out all this old “junk” and on page one we’re told that this was a bad decision.

If he had known how it, or one particular item among all the rest, would change his life, transform it, ruin it, he would have emptied the lot into a plastic bag, carried the bag down the road, and dumped it in the big rubbish bin.

So right away Carl makes a couple of bad decisions (keeping the diet pills, and picking a creepy tenant), and he continues to make bad decisions throughout the book. Some of these bad decisions can be chalked up to youth and inexperience, and Carl, faced with an untenable situation in his home, becomes increasingly paranoid. Through a series of missteps which are permeated with guilt, he sinks into isolation, a dark corner,

Dark cornersStory threads that connect in some way to Carl include various secondary characters. There’s a pathological liar, the opportunistic Lizzie who has a slight acquaintance with Stacey, the sitcom actress, and Lizzie’s retired father, Tom, whose new hobby, riding buses on his free bus pass leads to some difficult experiences. There’s also Carl’s girlfriend Nicola, and Dermot’s creepy fiancée. The threads concerning Tom seemed a little disconnected to the main storyline–although Tom’s recognition, and avoidance, of his daughter’s behaviour are well done.

Since her late teens, when Tom had expected Lizzie to change, to grow up and behave, he had viewed his daughter with a sinking heart, only briefly pleased when she got into what she called “uni.” But her degree in media studies was the lowest grade possible while still remaining a BA. Gradually, as she moved from one pathetic job to another, ending up with the one she had now–teaching assistant, alternating with playground supervisor of after-school five -year-olds killing time until a parent came to collect them–he felt for his daughter that no father should feel: a kind of sorrowful contempt. He had sometimes heard parents say of their child that they loved her but didn’t like her and wondered at this attitude. He no longer wondered; he knew. Walking into the house in Mamhead Drive, he asked himself what lie she would tell that evening, and how many justifications for her behaviour she would trot out.

The novel examines Carl’s growing paranoia and the utter loneliness he experiences. Hugging a nasty secret to himself, he becomes convinced that murder is the only option. Dark Corners argues that the corrosive qualities of guilt are unbearable–at least for the normal person who has any sort of conscience. Committing murder is a solitary path to take–other crimes (such as those committed by Lizzie) offer a return ticket, but murder is an irrevocable one way trip for both the victim and the killer.

It’s a bitter-sweet experience to read Ruth Rendell’s last novel, Dark Corners, published after her death. We’ll never again read an Inspector Wexford novel and return to those much loved characters from Kingsmarkham. While Dark Corners is certainly highly readable and completed, there’s a feeling that it’s not quite as polished as her other novels, but for fans, this novel is still a last gift. Ruth Rendell has provided millions of readers with wonderful crime books for decades. Here in this final novel, Rendell includes topical subjects such as the last book shop “for miles around“, the demise of small business, the prevalence of questionable supplements, and terrorism.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Rendell, Ruth

Savage Lane: Jason Starr

“Fantasies seem great, but they’re just gateway drugs. You need more and more and then, when reality kicks in, you’re totally fucked.”

Various destructive fantasies and desires collide and converge in Jason Starr’s Savage Lane, a maliciously dark look at the lives of a handful of affluent suburbanites. There is a consistent subtext throughout this author’s work: the American Dream is Starr’s American Nightmare. So whether Starr is focusing on stay-at home dads, achieving upward mobility, the vagaries of employment, assertiveness, home defense, or as in the case of Savage Lane, life in the ‘burbs, expect a subversive look at American society and its values. Jason Starr’s novels are classified as crime & suspense, and while there’s no argument there, since Starr’s characters are often supposedly decent upstanding members of society before they go off the rails and slide into criminality, I’ll add the label Transgressive fiction.

Savage Lane, a quiet prestigious neighbourhood in affluent Westchester county is home to the two families who are central to this story. There are the Bermans: husband Mark, his wife Debbie and their two children: Justin and Riley. And across the street is delectable, divorced Karen Daily and her two children Elana and Matthew.  Due to the similarities in status, economics and the children’s ages, the Bermans used to be best friends with Karen and her now-ex Joe, but since the divorce, things have become more awkward. As a divorced woman who dates a lot of men through internet sites, Karen has become, in the eyes of the other women in the community, a suspected husband stealer, a “homewrecker.”

The Bermans’ marriage is on the rocks, and while Deb has some nasty secrets of her own, she suspects that Mark is having an affair with Karen. Mark is certainly feeding the fire by hanging around Karen, jogging with her every day, texting her constantly and grabbing her hand at a party. Karen is so immersed in her own problems, that she fails to see the warning light, and Mark’s relationship as a friend creeps into something else.

Starr’s characters are constrained by societal standards but they long, or are pressured, to bust out and reveal the beast within. So we see Mark’s obsession with Karen growing to dangerous levels, and Deb, who has a problem with alcohol, determined to cast herself in the role of victim so that she can divorce, and loot, Mark. While these two families spiral out of control (and this includes a girl fight at the local prestigious country club), there’s another character here who’s already on the board and is about to change the entire game.

savage laneThat’s as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss.

I loved Savage Lane for its nastiness, its dark, dark humour, and its subversiveness. The story is told from various viewpoints–and I’ll stress not multiple narrators. That leaves Starr always in control of his story. Even though the story unfolds from different characters (including the wildly unreliable) so that we see inside their heads, Starr gives his characters no place to hide. While the characters comfort themselves with justification and excuses, their weaknesses and foibles are glaringly and hilariously on display. One of the techniques Starr employs is to show the way we lies to ourselves in order to slide into certain slippery behaviour. Here’s Karen with her usual liquid breakfast:

She still felt nauseated and her head was killing her. After making sure she’d deleted all the texts she’d sent and received, she switched the phone to silent mode and put it away in her purse. Then she heard Casey clacking away down the stairs and a few moments later he came into the kitchen, panting, and went right toward the sliding screen doors. She let him out and then, watching the happy dog sprint toward the backyard to do his business, the thought, Dog, hair of the dog, that’s it, and she got a glass, went to the liquor cabinet in the dining room, and poured some vodka–not much, just half a glass, enough to get back.

I especially loved the scenes en famille, for Starr is merciless with his portrayal of pathological family life. There’s an irony to the whole set-up. Karen, addicted to exercise and trying to stay marketable, is desperately surfing dating sites to get her new man while Deb, sinking into alcoholism, tells herself she doesn’t need her husband around anymore. Caught in between these two is cologne-soaked, pathetic creeper Mark, who fancies himself as a Javier Bardem look-alike. Here’s a chaotic scene in which a police detective, Piretti, questions Mark about his wife and his relationship with Karen. Mark is trying desperately to downplay any family issues, but his resentful teenage daughter jumps in and reveals the rot. Even the dog gets in on the mayhem.

“Friends don’t text that much, especially grownups who are friends. That’s why Mom wanted a divorce, because she knew what was going on too, she wasn’t a fucking idiot.”

“Riley, that’s enough,” her dad said, raising his voice.

But Riley kept going, saying, “It’s true. That’s why she’d been acting so weird lately.”

“How was she acting weird?” Piretti asked.

“She’s very upset, she doesn’t know what she’s saying,” her dad said to Piretti.

“She was too acting weird,” Riley said.
She was distracted all the time, and she was drinking like crazy. Sometimes I’d come home from school and smell the alcohol on her breath. Saturday morning in the car on the way home from dance class, she was acting really weird.”

“That’s enough Riley.,” her dad said.

“Let her talk,” Piretti said.


Then Justin came into the kitchen, holding an X-Box joystick, and asked, “Is Mom home yet?”

“Is that why Mom wanted a divorce?” Riley said to her dad. “Because you were going to leave her for Karen?”

Now Casey came into the kitchen and was barking.

“Shut up,” Mark said to her, and maybe to the dog too.

Jason Starr is not a stylist, and neither is he interested in in-depth character analysis, so his books tend to look as though they are deceptively easy to write. He is not writing ‘great literature,’ but neither is that his intention; Starr’s novels (he’s also written a number of graphic and comic books) are modern pulp threaded with societal concerns and pressures, so here we see mouthy teenagers who lead lives their parents are unaware of, children who are more worried about the X-Box than a less-than stellar parent, and cell phones as a helluva way to get in trouble. Spearing characters who find themselves in positions in life without quite understanding how they got there, Starr’s strengths are his plotting and his vision of the confinements of the norms of society. Just as you think you have nailed the plot of Savage Lane, Starr barrels in out of left field and delivers surprise after surprise, so be prepared. Savage Lane, fueled by the triple horsepower of urban middle age angst, fantasy and obsession is Starr’s best novel yet.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Starr Jason