Tag Archives: German crime fiction

The Pharmacist: Ingrid Noll

Margot was dressed in nothing but a black suspender belt and red boots, and she had perched her purple knickers coquettishly on her head.”

Pharmacist Hella Moorman is stuck in bed at the Heidelberg Hospital for Women. With nothing to do and bored to tears, Hella begins to tell her life story to her roommate, a very dull looking “ageing spinster.” It seems harmless to confess all, and the roommate, Rosemarie Hirte, following a hysterectomy and a cancer diagnosis, seems half asleep most of the time anyway. To Hella, telling all is “a kind of therapy.” Hella admits that in her past she “kept falling for men who were having an even harder time of it than I was.” That is a long way of saying they were LOSERS. Hella, who comes from a good family, has a pattern of trying to salvage hopeless men. By the time she’s an adult, she’s been accused of murder (nothing can be proved) and has had a string of awful men in her life. But she’s intelligent and becomes a pharmacist.

Enter Levin, a much younger man who says he’s studying to be a dentist. Within a short period of time, Levin has moved in, and good at spending Hella’s money, he persuades her to buy a flashy red convertible. There’s the impression that Hella is not very attractive; she’s the one who has to initiate sex with Levin. He doesn’t seem that interested, and he’s much more interested in the sports car. Hella admits the car has its uses: “it was fun roaring around with someone in a perpetual state of euphoria.

Over time, Hella learns that Levin is to inherit his grandfather, Herman’s, impressive mansion and ALL of his money. Too bad the old chap won’t be reasonable and die. In the meantime, Levin, who can’t wait for his inheritance begins to siphon off valuables from his grandfather’s house. Levin employs a vastly unsuitable young woman named Margot to care for his grandfather. Margot looks as though she belongs on a stripper pole rather than behind a wheelchair.

Margot was no thrifty housekeeper but a thoroughly incompetent slut.

As Rosemarie listens to this sordid tale from her hospital bed, she occasionally jumps in with snarky, tart comments. At one point she interrupts Hella:

“Were you really so stupid as to actually marry that waster?” demanded Frau Hirte. “If so, then please skip the wedding, if you don’t mind, and go straight on to the successful divorce proceedings.”

Rosemarie doesn’t seem in the least concerned to hear that Levin was fascinated by Hella’s secret stash of poisons passed on from her creepy Nazi grandfather.

Hella’s tale is tinged with ‘if onlys.’ If only Levin will marry her … If only she can have a child … If only Margot would leave …

Here’s Hella’s wedding day with Margot stealing the show:

I looked so pretty, or at least so I imagined; my costume suited me perfectly and my father had put around my neck, with his own fair hand, the six rows of polished pearls and garnets which had belonged to his grandmother and which I had had my eye on for a long time. But then it all started to go wrong. I caught sight of Margot and was horrified. Was this the mangy cat who had, after a fashion, taken care of Herman Graber’s household? Before me stood a young woman in a black dress, the top half transparent and, at the back, plunging all the way down to the start of the valley between her buttocks; totally out of place, and no doubt paid for out of my money. And confronted with this package of aggressive, low-class sex, many of the men were asking eagerly, ‘who’s that, then?

Things become even more complicated when Margot’s husband, Dieter, Levin’s best friend and former partner-in-crime, shows up. Yes Hella’s life would be perfect … if only Margot would disappear. And then there’s the decision about which man of three (yes, three no less) she should choose. As Hella’s sordid tale continues, and becomes darker, we only have her version of events. She positions herself as an innocent bystander surrounded by users and yet is Hella the sort to be a victim? Is Hella a reliable narrator? This novel, with its dark transgressive humour, follows Hella’s lifestory as told to Rosemarie Hirte. Rosemarie, by the way, has a sordid tale of her own in Hell Hath No Fury.

Goodwill, dependability, loyalty and morality don’t stand a chance when sex is involved.

This was a great pick for German Literature Month.

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The Girl Who Wasn’t There: Ferdinand von Schirach

Ferdinand von Schirach focuses on the impulses behind murder, and in The Girl Who Wasn’t There, defense lawyer Konrad Biegler faces a difficult case when he represents Sebastian von Eschburg. The novel begins with Sebastian’s childhood. It’s a familiar story of a wealthy family who went down the toilet when one generation made the money and the next spent it. The family mansion fell into disrepair. But it’s still a vast house, sitting on acreage.

Plaster flaked off the walls, the two side wings were not heated in winter, and moss grew on the rooftops. In spring and autumn metal buckets stood in the attic to catch the rain.

In this dismal environment the relics of treasures of various continents mingle with dead animal body parts–the remnants of the Eschburgs’ hunting expeditions. Sebastian is born at home when the car belonging to his parents won’t start. As a neglected, lonely child he’s ‘different,’ and sees his world through a wider range of colour spectrum. The human eye normally sees colours between 400-700 nanometers.

There had always been two worlds in Sebastian’s life. The retinas of his eyes perceived electromagnetic waves between 380 and 780 nanometers, his brain translated them into two hundred tones of colour, five hundred degrees of brightness and twenty different shades of white. He saw what other people saw, but in his mind the colours were different. They had no names because there weren’t enough words for them. His nanny’s hands were cyan and amber; his father’s skin was a pale greenish-blue. Only his mother had no colour at all. For a long time, Sebastian thought that she was made of water, and took on the shape that everyone knew when he went into her room. He admired the speed with which she had always successfully performed this transformation.

He loves the house but is sent off to boarding school at age ten. There are many names given to various psychological states, and no doubt there would be one to fit Sebastian. He’s a disturbed child and he becomes more disturbed after his father’s suicide. Eventually Sebastian becomes an acclaimed photographer, and his work, which questions reality, is controversial. He slides into porn (which is an interesting approach to the reality question) and violence. When Sebastian is accused of murder, there seems to be a natural path from his artistic material to the accusations against him.

The sections about Sebastian’s mother and his childhood are the strongest in the novel. In spite of an intriguing plot, this novel was a limp read. While I felt compassion for the lonely neglected child, Sebastian, as an adult, is not convincing and the whole murder/solution was too sketchy and contrived for this reader.

Translated by Anthea Bell

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Hell Hath No Fury: Ingrid Noll

“How am I to know you’re not some criminal lunatic?”

Ingrid Noll’s Hell Hath No Fury is a darkly funny tale of obsession, murder, and female competition for a worthless man. The tale, told by an insane stalker who sees her actions as perfectly reasonable and granting her a new enthusiasm for life, examines two questions: how far would someone go to get what they want and do they really want it anyway?

52 -year-old dowdy spinster Rosemarie Hirte leads a quiet life; she’s a good, reliable employee, and she’s only had a couple of romantic relationships. After being dumped by a fellow law student in her youth, she never managed to finish her degree, but instead moved into the insurance business. Now she lives in an apartment in Mannheim, and she has a friend, Beate, a woman she first knew in school. Beate, at one point, had everything that Rosemarie didn’t: a husband, a home, a family, and a social life. “Deep down” Rosemarie is “consumed with hostility towards so much sunshine,” but when Beate’s marriage ends, the two women become closer.

Hell hath no fury

Due to Beate’s drive towards self-improvement and new experiences, Rosemarie first sets eyes on middle-aged academic Rainer Witold Engstern. She becomes obsessed with him, has her hair cut, begins wearing clothes that are “romantically frivolous,” and begins stalking him.

Throughout this tale, the figure of Frau Romer, an older woman who works with Rosemarie, flits in and out of the narrative. With significant health issues, she lodges her elderly dog with Rosemarie, and the dog becomes a prop in Rosemarie’s twisted schemes to be with Witold.

Now I had a crazy idea. I thumbed through the telephone directory. Where did my Rainer Witold Engstern live? Or should I just call him Witold? My first flick through produced nothing, but at last I struck oil. R. Engstern, Ladenburg–got him! Good grief, with no rush-hour traffic, I could drive there in fifteen minutes. I even dug out a street plan of Ladenburg and found his street too, a little way outside the old town. The dog was giving me questioning looks. I felt young, thirsting for adventure. I still had a jogging outfit from my last day at the spa in Bad Sassbach, although I never wore it. So, on with that, dog on its lead, down the stairs, into the car and off we go!

A few trips, later spying on Witold’s house, Rosemarie decides the mess in his home is due to his “slovenly bitch” wife, who is conspicuously absent. It’s the appearance of Witold’s wife that sets a macabre chain of events into motion, and as Rosemarie wheedles her way into Witold’s world, the women in his life don’t realize that they have a rival who will stop at nothing to win the prize. Such as it is…

Hell Hath No Fury is brilliantly and unreliably narrated by Rosemarie. She tends to see what she wants to see, and this twisted vision leads down the path to murder. Rosemarie is the sort of woman people don’t notice, a woman defined by her status and not by the bitter, seething, buried cauldron of repressed desire and emotion bubbling away just under the surface. She lives the life of a “martinet,” keeping her spleen to herself when parents wax on about their children and their love lives. Rosemarie loathes the parent-child bond, hates other women, especially if they are attractive and can cook, and she knows she is one of the “leftovers sat on the fringes like fossils.” She’s always been hiding in plain sight, but it’s her desire for Witold that unleashes her true nature.

As the story progresses, Witold is clueless, and being in his self-centered, not particularly bright orbit, Rosemarie begins to wonder if the prize is worth all the effort, but by this point, she’s narcotized by “an addictive urge,” the power of wielding life and death.

The dark humour springs from the incongruity of Rosemarie as a serial killer and the tart, spiteful inner dialogue about the people she socialises with. Most of Witold’s friends include her as a form of kindness which is rather wasted on Rosemarie. Rosemarie’s thought processes seem so very reasonable, but juxtaposed with her actions, the story takes on a macabre comic tone. She toys with the idea of whether or not to kill someone with the lightness of tone that’s more appropriate to deciding which shirt to wear.  At one point she experiments with poison and decides: “No I told myself, poisoning is not my thing.”

And when I arrived at the last page, I laughed out loud.

Highly, highly recommended

Translated by Ian Mitchell

(This is one of my picks for German literature month, and many thanks to Caroline for pointing me towards this author. )

 

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The Spoke: Friedrich Glauser (1937)

German Literature Month 2018

German Literature month rolls around yet again. I’m late to the party–or at least my reviews are.

“There ought to be a law, the sergeant said to himself, against women painting and powdering themselves. The layer covering their cheeks could easily, all too easily, hide a flush, a sudden pallor.”

A few years ago, during German Literature Month 2015, I reviewed Friedrich Glauser’s Thumbprint. I had more Glauser on the shelf, so it was time to take the plunge…

Detective Sgt Studer of the Bern police is back once more for what should be a happy occasion. His daughter is going to be married, and the groom is Albert Guhl, a corporal in the Thurgau Cantonal Police. Studer, his wife Hedy, and daughter travel to Schwarzenstein for the ceremony and stay at a hotel run by Studer’s childhood sweetheart, Anni. Anni is now married to Karl Rechsteiner who is bedridden and has been treated for consumption.

The Spoke

Murder seems to follow fictional detectives, and this is certainly true for Studer who should be concentrating on his daughter’s wedding and instead is confronted with a corpse inside the hotel. Murder never takes a holiday, I suppose, and so Studer begins to investigate. The victim, a young man, has been skewered with a sharpened spoke from a bicycle, and guess what, there’s a bicycle repair shop right next to the hotel. …

The case seems to present its own solution, especially when the owner of the bicycle shop, Ernst Graf, seems to be one part of of a love triangle involving the murder victim.

The Spoke was more enjoyable than Thumbprint, possibly because we get to see more of Studer’s personality, investigation style, and his sense of humour, plus there are some very interesting characters/suspects here–including Fräulein Loppacher who appears to have been in relationships with both Graf (the main suspect) and Stieger (the victim). Other detectives would rush to close the case and move onto the wedding, but not Studer. Studer’s family exist in the periphery and he seems to spend far more time dwelling on Anni’s sad, hard life. The novel explores early forensics (this was published in 1937), and reflects attitudes of its time.

Studer’s sense of humour is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the tale, but unfortunately I guessed the culprit very early in the book. My copy, from Bitter Lemon Press contains a brief bio of the author, Friedrich Glauser, who was, apparently, addicted to opium and morphine. A diagnosed schizophrenic, he spent “most of his life” in various insane asylums, did a stint in the Foreign legion and prison when he was caught forging prescriptions. He died at age 42.

Translated by Mike Mitchell

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Fear: Dirk Kurbjuweit

German Literature Month 2017

We always live at least two lives, especially after a big decision: the life we decided on and the life we decided against.”

Yes! It’s German Literature Month, and I may be off to a slow start, but at least it’s a good start. My first pick for this month is Dirk Kurbjuweit’s novel Fear, and while this novel can be classified as crime, it’s much more than that.

The novel opens with our narrator, Randolph Tiefenthaler, a successful married architect in his 40s, visiting his 78 year-old father in prison. Randolph’s father, a man with no prior history of crime, is incarcerated for manslaughter. He’s a model prisoner, and the guards like him. What drove this elderly man to kill another human being? What is the backstory?

The rest of the novel unfolds as Randolph, with more than a little guilt, tells of the events surrounding his father’s incarceration. The Thiefenthalers, Randolph, Rebecca and their two children, Paul and Fay moved to a beautiful apartment in a pleasant middle class neighbourhood. There their formerly peaceful life is thrown into chaos thanks to their basement neighbour, Dieter Tiberius, an overweight, unemployed, chronically institutionalized man who is the product of childhood abuse. The situation between Dieter and the Thiefenthalers becomes intolerable, and something is going to explode: Randolph acknowledges: “we thought, said and did a great deal that contradicted the image we had of ourselves, and what I call our enlightened middle-class values.”

At first Dieter seems to be a pleasant, friendly man, but as he becomes more disinhibited around the Thiefenthalers, he becomes obsessed with Rebecca; he leaves her love letters and poems, and there’s evidence (thanks to an abandoned ladder) that he spies on the family in their most secret moments.

Fear

Things escalate, however, when Dieter starts accusing the Thiefenthalers of sexually abusing their children which results in repeated visits from the police. Randolph and Rebecca desperately seek police protection only to be told there is no case, so they turn to legal means which prove to be equally useless.  They find themselves behaving stiffly in the face of accusations, wondering how to act with their children. Even discussing the situation with friends fails to draw sympathy.

Even before Rebecca had finished talking, I saw her school friend’s wife purse her lips. Was it not possible, she asked eventually, that Dieter Tiberius was just a victim? After all, he’d grown up a ward of the state, and we all knew what went on in children’s homes.

Underneath this drama, however, there are undercurrents. Randolph is experiencing some sort of need to distance himself from his wife and family, and he has to curb his behaviour due to his wife’s fear of being alone. Randolph also reminisces about his childhood, his father’s love of guns, and how he disliked weapons, even becoming a pacifist.

Fear explores several issues such as the limitations of law though various encounters with several institutions. Also under scrutiny is the idea of masculinity. Dieter Tiberius is seen as the victim, while Randolph suffers comments from his brother and others about being ‘less than a man’ for not taking matters into his own hands and beating the shit out of Dieter. It’s interesting that no one expects Rebecca to find a solution: everything rests on Randolph’s masculinity. Also, I’m going to add that the book takes a look at telescopic empathy. When reading the newspaper, it’s easy to sympathise with someone who’s spent a lifetime in various institutions and now is basically non functional, but it’s an entirely different thing to have to deal with someone who’s severely damaged when they live in the basement flat.

Anyone who has ever known the frustration of trying to get legal help for a slippery situation will identify with Randolph’s feelings of helplessness as he tries, repeatedly, to get help with this untenable situation. As he deals with the police and social workers, Randolph finds his faith in the ‘system,’ and the Rule of Law slipping. All of the things Randolph believed in, the person he thought he was, slip away.

The loser is strong because he has nothing left to lose. People like me, apparently,  life’s winners, are weak because they have so much they want to hang on to. The upwardly mobile are particularly afraid. We are afraid of losing what we have attained, because it is not secure. neither morally nor financially.

Fear is a gripping read. The ending went on a bit too long IMO (quit while you’re ahead,) but that’s the only criticism I have. Finally a word on the cover: the novel has a way of pulling the reader into the drama here, so that we find ourselves what we would have done in Randolph’s shoes. Similarly, the cover hints of being drawn, step by step, into a claustrophobic nightmare of paranoia and fear.

Review copy

Translated by Imogen Taylor

 

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Happy Birthday, Turk!: Jakob Arjouni

If you’re looking for a humourous, low-rent PI story, then you can’t go wrong with Jakob Arjouni’s Kemal Kayankaya series. There’s a total of five books, and sadly there won’t be any more as author Jakob Arjouni died, aged 48, of pancreatic cancer, in 2013.

Happy Birthday, Turk!

More Beer

One Man, One Murder

Kismet

Brother Kemal

Humour and crime fiction can be an uneasy blend, and if the humour is misplaced, the reader can be left feeling a little queasy, but Arjouni hits just the right mix of crime and dark sardonic humour. Kemal Kayankaya, a Turkish immigrant, in common with other great fictional PIs, doesn’t seek to impress. Personally, he’s a trainwreck, but he’s the type of character who inspires affection, simply because he’s a flawed human being with no pretense of being anything else.

Happy Birthday Turk

It’s Kemal Kayankaya’s birthday, and he wakes up in his apartment, shakes off a hangover from his early (pathetic) celebration the night before, and begins his day with a beer and a cigarette. Hardly the Breakfast of Champions, but Kemal shuffles off to work.  Once in his office, he looks out of his window and “kept an eye out for wealthy, good-looking female clients.” His wish only comes partly true when a Turkish woman arrives at Kemal’s office and hires him to discover who knifed her husband in the back outside of a brothel. The case takes Kemal to Frankfurt’s sordid red light district near the railway station.

Bright juicy neon and posters depicting two-hundred-pound bosoms, orgiastically grunting women, and glowing pink mountains of pink buttocks covered the facades of buildings on both sides of the street. In front of the purple plush curtains of various clubs stood men with pale and rancid faces, urging the passing throng to pay a visit to their establishments. Small but powerful loudspeakers transmitted groans resembling those of slaughtered animals, enhanced by luke-warm disco noise into the street. In groups of three of four, horny farm boys from the surrounding countryside jostled their way down the street, mouths and eyes open wide; retirees peered into the flaking entrance halls, licking the drool out of their wrinkles. Married men cast wary glances up and down the street before emerging from the pink swinging doors of a “Love Inn” and hurrying off. I stood there a while and smoked a cigarette. 

Kemal’s investigation bounces between the red light district, the murdered man’s mostly hostile family, and the local cop shop. Humour makes this book a light, entertaining and pleasant read. We see incidents of racism which Kemal (and the author) use to show the depth of human folly.  At one point Kemal’s foot touches a beer can on the street, and the can makes contact with someone’s leg:

“Now wait a minute!” The leg’s fat owner stopped and executed a cumbersome turn to face me. “Let me tell you something.”

I gave him a smile.

“Oh I see! No speaka da lingo, eh?”

He turned to establish eye contact with his three companions. They stood there with big grins on their porcine mugs. 

“This Germany! This no Turkey! Here beer cans go in garbage. And Turk fellow drive garbage truck!”

This was accompanied by loud appreciative whinnies. Their potbellies wobbled like jelly. 

The red light district is seedy. Prostitution is a business which involves a high degree of fantasy, but here the fantasy is stripped away, and we see the reality of an industry in which the women work hard, and end up as hard and leathery as Milly, an aging, former prostitute who now runs a bar/brothel that promises “Fun till 4 AM.”  Kemal is perfectly comfortable and confident there as he watches how the “tanned pimps in white sports coats were entertaining their present and future employees with tales of high adventure.”

Highly recommended for those who like foreign crime with lots of humour and without the gore.

Translated by Anshelm Hollo

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Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions: Mario Giordano

“Fragrantly, in a white caftan and gold gladiator sandals plus dramatic eyeliner and plenty of rouge, she used to sail into the bar like a cruise liner visiting a provincial marina.”

german-literature-month-2016Yes it’s German Literature Month 2016 and what would this event be without a crime novel? Last year for GLM, I reviewed Thumbprint a 1936 novel from Friedrich Glauser; this year it’s Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by Mario Giordano. The author, a child of Italian immigrants was born in Munich, and this first crime novel was originally published in German. Interestingly, the novel’s protagonist, Auntie Poldi is a German woman who decides to move to Italy. …

auntie-poldi

The novel’s narrator is Auntie Poldi’s nephew, a would-be writer who plans to write a “big, epic family saga spanning three German-Sicilian generations” but, so far, has made little progress. He relates how Auntie Poldi, at age 60, decided to move to Sicily “intending to drink herself comfortably to death with a sea view.” The nephew comes to visit once a month, living in his aunt’s attic ostensibly to work on that great novel, but also to keep an eye on his aunt. Auntie Poldi, a “pig-headed Bavarian,” is a sort of larger-than-life Auntie Mame figure; her hobby is to collect photographs of “good looking traffic cops from all over the world.”

My Auntie Poldi: a glamorous figure, always ready to make a dramatic entrance. She had put on a bit of weight in recent years, admittedly, and booze and depression had ploughed a few furrows in her outward appearance, but she was still an attractive woman and mentally tip-top-most of the time, at least. Stylish, anyway. 

Auntie Poldi (Isolde) had a career as a costume designer, and married a tailor, Peppe (Giuseppe).

Poldi and my Uncle Peppe had shared a grand passion, but alas, a few things went badly wrong. Two miscarriages, booze, my uncle’s womanizing, divorce from my uncle, my uncle’s illness, my uncle’s death, the whole issue of the plot of land in Tanzania and sundry other unpleasant twists and turns, setbacks and upheavals of life had stricken my aunt with depression.

Poldi’s retirement to Sicily has her relatives concerned, but she refuses to move closer to them in Catania, and instead moves to Torre Archirafi (found photos of the place online, and it is spectacular). The novel goes on to include some unpleasant realities about living there along with details that bring the location to life.

Poldi, in common with those who have strong personalities, has theories on just about everything, and while she may think she wants a quiet retirement, it’s clear that that will never happen. This indomitable woman turns into an amateur sleuth after the disappearance of a young handyman she employs, and she rapidly gets in much deeper than she expected.  Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions would be easy to classify as a cozy mystery, but I wouldn’t place the book fully in that subgenre: it’s too tangy a book for that classification. It’s definitely an amateur sleuth book, on the light side of crime, with an emphasis on humour and irrepressible figure of Auntie Poldi, but the book is also a statement about being comfortable in one’s own skin.  The appeal of the promised series will depend very much on how the reader connects to the character of Auntie Poldi. If you are looking for light, amusing crime set in an exotic location with a confident, older protagonist, then this book is a pleasant way to spend a few hours.

Review copy

Translated by John Brownjohn

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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

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Silence by Jan Costin Wagner

2014

I am delighted that Lizzy and Caroline decided to host yet another German Literature Month—a blogging event I looked forward to all year, but even though I’ve had a year (since GLM 2013) to select books, I found myself with no concrete plans except the promise to read some Joseph Roth. Then a few weeks ago, Caroline, in a lead-up to the month, made a post with a few book suggestions. There was a name on the list… Jan Costin Wagner, a German writer of crime novels set in Finland….

I ordered Silence, and when the book arrived the cover was different from the one expected. Not a big deal, but the cover of my edition is the film tie-in version, and guess what, I’d seen the film which was excellent btw. I’d seen the film a few years ago, but it was one of those films you’d don’t forget, and the plot didn’t disappear into the ether the minute I turned off the DVD player. So my main concern, after seeing the film version, was that I’d feel a total lack of suspense when reading Silence.

Set in the small Finnish town of Turku, the novel focuses on the disappearance of a young girl who simply vanishes one summer day while on her way to volleyball practice. The thought that a human being can vanish without a trace is eerie, but in this case, it seems that history has repeated itself. The missing girl’s bicycle is found in a field right next to a makeshift shrine to yet another young girl who vanished from the same spot 33 years earlier. It’s impossible to not connect the two crimes. The first girl, raped and murdered, was eventually found in a remote lake, and of course, the police and the community fear that a similar fate awaits the second girl. Is the same killer, possibly now geriatric, responsible for the fate of the two girls? Or is this a copy-cat crime?

silenceSilence begins back in 1974 and within a few pages we know exactly who the killer is. The suspense, and there’s a lot of it, is generated by the unknown fate of the second girl, 33 years later, and whether or not the police will solve the two crimes. Interestingly the film diverged from the book in several ways. The plot is still recognizable, but the film includes some bold differences. The film is a much more traditional investigation, with an emphasis on the visual (some of the more painful details not flushed out in the book), and the book’s cover indicates one of the crucial clues missed in the first investigation and not touched on at all in the book. The book is quite different (you’ll see why if you watch the film too),  and the inner lives of the detectives following the case are a main focus. Ketola was a young policeman, new to the force when the first girl, a thirteen year old named Pia was murdered, and even though he retires shortly after the novel begins, he cannot forget the case and even drags a model of the crime scene, made in 1974, back to his home in case staring at it all day will wake up some dormant clue.

Another policeman on the case is Kemmo Joentaa, a widower who lives in a home that’s basically become a shrine to his dead wife, Sanna.  Joentaa sees exactly the same presence of the dead when he goes to question Pia’s mother, Elina. People are surprised that she stayed in the same house, and there’s an unspoken criticism that she chose to do so, but Joentaa understands all too well how hard it is to let go.

The girl in the photograph was laughing. A peal of laughter, thought Joentaa, those were the words that had occurred to him when he saw the picture of the girl. Pia Lehtinen.
Joentaa stood in front of the photograph and felt a tingling sensation at the idea that it had been hanging there for decades. Just as Sanna’s photos would still be in the same place. decades from now.

“That’s Pia,” said Elina Lehtinen, who had come to his side. She was carrying a tray with cups, plates and a blueberry cake still steaming from the oven.

“I know,” said Joentaa.

“Of course. You have a photograph in your files,” said Elina Lehtinen.

Joentaa nodded.

“It’s incredibly long ago,” she went on, without taking her eyes off the photograph. “I was thinking about that yesterday, and I was surprised to realize that today Pia would be a woman of forty-six. Hard to imagine.” She looked at him and smiled.

Elina Lehtinen’s  daughter was murdered 33 years earlier, but the parents of missing Sinnaka Vehkasalo are enduring the agony of a missing daughter who’s feared murdered. Elina and her husband divorced after the murder of their daughter, and Pia’s father still can’t talk about it. We see Sinnaka’s parents travelling down the same path as they blame each other over various aspects of their daughter’s disappearance. The contrast of these two sets of parents is interesting and subtle. Elina has managed to attain a certain serenity but we know that it was hell getting there.

“Once I really did have a great fit of laughter,” continued Elina Lehtinen and she was laughing again now as she saw Joentaa’s face.

“An extraordinary fit of laughter, it’s my most vivid memory. On the day my husband left me. He said he was going now, and I started laughing and couldn’t stop until that evening, and the next day I rang my neighbour’s doorbell and they took me to a hospital, and I spent  a long time having treatment there. Is the cake alright?”

“It’s very good,” said Joentaa.

“My most vivid memory,” she repeated. “Everything else is almost just a  … well, a feeling of everything being over. It’s sometimes close, sometimes further away. You talk to people, that sometimes helped me. And now it’s ages ago, but it’s beginning all over again.”

“You mean the missing girl, Sinikka?”

“Yes. It’s repeating itself. When I saw the police officers I wasn’t surprised. Because I’d always expected it to happen again, somehow. Do you understand?”

Joentaa didn’t answer. He didn’t know whether he understood or not.

“I always knew that couldn’t have been all, because some time everything comes to an end, but this never really did. I’m afraid I can’t explain it better.”

The pain and difficulty of parenthood is evident through the glimpses we have of these distraught parents, but there’s also Ketola who’s coming to terms with the fact that his son is mentally ill. There’s some unfinished business at the end of the book. Ketola is obsessed with Pia’s murder–the case he never managed to solve during his long career, but something also gnaws at the corners of Joentaa’s mind.

The silence of the title refers to the things left unsaid–the thoughts we cannot express to people, the spaces left by the dead, and the silence of waiting for answers. The book’s intriguing premise is more than matched by the characters, and I’m delighted to learn that Joentaa appears in other books from this author.

Thanks for the tip, Caroline.

Translation by Anthea Bell

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Filed under Fiction, Wagner Jan Costin

A Dangerous Encounter by Ernst Jünger

German literature monthBack to German Literature month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, and this time it’s Ernst Jünger’s A Dangerous Encounter (Eine Gefährliche Begegnung). I don’t usually read historical fiction as I am annoyed by modern sensibilities that tend to creep into the narrative all too often. A Dangerous Encounter is historical since it was published in 1985 but it’s set at the end of the nineteenth century.  In the case of A Dangerous Encounter, this was a book I couldn’t resist, and I’m glad I didn’t.  Jünger shows us a decadent, glittering wealthy Parisian society full of unhappy people, but underneath it, in the substrate, “meanness, ugliness, even crime were smouldering beneath the varnish.”   In a world plagued by fears of Jack the Ripper, two valiant, dedicated detectives re-establish order in the chaos caused by infidelity, violence and murder. 

a dangerous encounterThe book begins with a young, very handsome and very innocent young man named Gerhard, an embassy employee, strolling in Paris on one Sunday in Autumn. Gerhard’s walk takes him into unknown territory deep into the seedy side of Paris. Gerhard isn’t comfortable there; he’s so innocent that people find him “childlike.” This innocence, of course, extends to women–creatures he regards as unapproachable beings. Gerhard is so innocent that he even fails to notice that women find him very attractive and send signals that they’d welcome his attention.

Gerhard heard the rustle of silk, when their skirts nearly brushed against him, like the murmur of a distant tide carried on the breeze. And he was always seized with awe as before a sublime painting, as if goddesses were offering themselves to his gaze; fairies and enchantresses followed at their heels.

He was always surprised, indeed amazed when he saw them in the company of men. To approach them struck him as imprudent; the very thought of it was inconceivable. But wonderful, uplifting conversations would be possible with them; he felt this intuitively. Yet he would be incapable of opening his mouth–this he knew for sure. In his dreams, he was their servant; their confidant as well. He saw himself as their deliverer from perils and his destiny bound up with theirs amidst vicissitudes that are depicted in novels.

This a passage like that, it’s not hard to see that Gerhard is out-of-his depth with women, and that leads to the idea that Gerhard is the sort of young man who could so easily find himself in trouble if the wrong woman enters his life. From Gerhard’s stroll, there’s a segue to a recent conversation between Gerhard’s uncle, the ambassador and his wife as they discuss the young man’s vulnerability. Herr von Zimmern tells his wife that Gerhard is like his father and that he will mature through experience and “encounters that crystallize what is at first only vague rumination.” Frau von Zimmern isn’t convinced and sees Gerhard as likely, through his total innocence, to have “evil encounters.” As it turns out, she’s correct.

Gerhard has a “chance encounter with Léon Duchase, a jaded and dyspeptic aesthete,” and they join each other for lunch. Duchase  is a wonderful character–someone who belongs in a Huysmans novel, and there’s something nasty about his sordid world-weariness set against Gerhard’s innocence … almost as though Duchase would enjoy ruining this young man. Although Duchase has an aristocratic background, “he was only to be seen on the fringes of society; at the races, at the gaming tables, and the luncheons.”  Duchasse made a “fabulous marriage,” but recklessly squandered his wife’s fortune. Now left only with “infallible taste,” Duchasse, who attaches himself to wealthy people, is a broker of sorts–antiques, carpets, paintings, houses and even of relationships. He appears to have a certain bonhomie yet beneath that social mask lies “hatred for the pleasures and for those enjoying them.”

The lunch is littered with barbed, bitter comments from Duchasse which sail over Gerhard’s head, but then Gerhard notices a woman who triggers his gallant, heroic streak. The neglected married woman is Irene, unstable, volatile and very beautiful. Duchasse thinks that in the “old days” Irene, who is trying very hard to commit adultery, was the sort of woman who would have “been stuck in a convent.”

Beauty and agitation were at variance in this face. Misfortune always ensues when power is inherited without the self-assurance needed to control it. Just as a large fortune only causes mischief when it passes to a spendthrift, beauty can prove to be a dangerous endowment for whoever inherits it, as well as for others.

To Duchasse, “society is ruined, there are no boundaries,” and the “open hunt” for married women is a “basic right.” Duchasse, maliciously anticipating the fallout from a delicious scandal, throws Gerhard into Irene’s path by sending her a bouquet of roses and including Gerhard’s card. And Gerhard, who has no idea of the implications of his actions, finds himself meeting this married woman as he’s literally shoved inside a sordid little hotel known as a meeting place for discreet lovers….

Then the novel becomes a murder mystery, and Gerhard, Duchasse, Irene, and Irene’s husband, a very dark character named Kargané–a man who owns distant estates in Transylvania–recede into the background as the detectives Inspector Dobrowsky and his protégé, Etienne move forward to investigate the crime which is initially laid at the feet of Jack the Ripper who, it’s assumed, has hopped the Channel. A considerable portion of the book is spent on the detectives, their backgrounds and their relationship.

While I enjoyed all of this, the author removes one set of intriguing characters and replaced them with another set. The inside flap of my copy explains this structure by saying that “Jünger’s trap is sprung: after luring us (like Gerhard himself) into the languorous world of decadent pleasure, he plunges the reader into a crackling detective novel, complete with an engagingly metaphysical investigator.” There’s nothing to really argue about with that statement except to say that I wanted to read more about Gerhard and Duchasse, and they moved from being at the centre of the drama. There’s an expectation that the narrative will follow a more traditional trajectory with Gerhard falling madly in love with Irene and then learning some painful lessons of life through a torrid love affair. This doesn’t happen, and while Gerhard learns some lessons, it’s not what we originally expect, and just which “dangerous encounter”  is indicated by the title could be one of several scenes in the novel. Clearly Jünger loved these characters, and he spends no small amount of time filling in character outlines with delicious details, so that characters who could be considered as secondary, Wilhelm von Goldhammer: The Rittmeister, and Madame Stephanie, for example,  are given several pages of their own. My complaint, if I had one, is that the novel at 187 pages, shut some characters down too soon. I wanted to read more about these people, and there’s the feeling that the characters of Etienne and Dobrowsky could have their own series of novels.

Finally, I loved the wisdom here:

There are several reasons why excess is antagonistic to happiness and fulfillment

and

Like so many men, he had married the type that was least suited to him.

But the wisest character has to be the remarkable Dobrowsky who expounds on his theories of crime, and why random crime is harder to solve than the most carefully planned and executed schemes:

Intelligence gets caught in its own snares, He who proceeds according to the rules of his art poses a problem that can be solved. The man in the woods who knocks down and robs the first person to come along is more difficult to track down than the most cunning check forger, who must constantly leave traces, even as a signature. Hence we criminologists are faced with the peculiar fact that the dilettante gives us harder nuts to crack than the experts.

Translated by Hillary Barr

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Filed under Fiction, Jünger Ernst