Tag Archives: German crime fiction

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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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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Brenner and God by Wolf Haas

What would German Literature month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, be without a German crime novel? I had several choices on hand. Thought about The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach. Almost picked up Therapy by Sebastian Fitzek but finally settled on Brenner and God by Wolf Haas–although its terrible titles did it no favours.

At just over 200 pages, Brenner and God, translated by Annie Janusch, one of the Melville International Crime titles, is a fairly quick read. For about the first 80 pages or so, I really enjoyed the book–liked its humor and enjoyed its main character, Simon Brenner, but then about 40% through the book, the narrative style began to get on my nerves. More of that later.

The book begins with Simon Brenner, a former policeman and now a much tamer, milder, and medicated Brenner employed as a chauffeur for the very wealthy Kressdorf family. Herr Kressdorf, “lion of construction,” is based in Munich, while Frau Kressdorf works in an OBGYN clinic in Vienna. Mostly Brenner drives their 2-year-old child, Helena Kressdorf back and forth. Brenner has become a bit dotty about the child, so he enjoys his salary as well as the plush apartment that comes with the job.

The action begins shortly after the novel begins. Breaking his usual habits, Brenner stops at the petrol station to fill up the BMW and leaves the little girl locked inside. When he returns, after dawdling over the choice of a forbidden chocolate bar for Helena, Brenner is stunned to find that the child is gone. Although the station had a surveillance camera, the BMW just happened to be parked out of sight of the cameras. To make matters worse, either due to a state of shock, or that his reactions are impacted by his mood-altering prescription drugs, Brenner doesn’t immediately call the police. Given the overwhelmingly suspicious circumstances of Helena’s disappearance, it’s no surprise that a freshly unemployed Brenner finds himself as a suspect.

But let’s not forget that Helena’s mother, a doctor, performs abortions, and the clinic at which she works is under constant protest from a group of fanatics led by the charismatic Knoll. Knoll recently made some particularly nasty veiled threats that “the good lord, from whom she had taken so many children, might take her child away, too some day.”

Since Brenner feels responsible for Helena’s disappearance, he decides to investigate the crime himself and, of course, gets into all sorts of messes.

So much for the plot. Now for style. At first I really enjoyed the author’s style, plus Brenner is not a run-of-the-mill character by any means.

My grandmother used to say to me, when you die, they’re gonna give that mouth of yours its own funeral. So, you see a person can change. Because today I am the epitome of silence. And it’d take something out of the ordinary to get me started. The days when everything used to set me off are over. Listen, why should every bloodbath wind up in my pint of beer? Like I’ve been saying for some time now, it’s up to the boys to take care of. My motto, as it were.

Chatty, personal, with the beginnings of a well-defined character there. But the problems emerged, at least for this reader, in the increasingly intrusive narrative voice. The narrative style overwhelmed the mystery at times, and so while Brenner begins his own investigation into Helena’s disappear, the smartass narrative voice holds sway:

One thing I’ve never liked about the human brain: that in the most dangerous situations, it often attaches importance to the silliest little things. So it bothers you that the executioner uses a bad aftershave, it bothers you that the doctor pronounces your throat cancer with s rolled R, and it bothers you you can’t claim your wedding ring as a tax deduction. And believe it or not, it was bothering Brenner now that he should have to slip into a hunting ensemble while Kressdorf nagged him.

These sorts of asides might be ok in small doses, but since they appear frequently in this already slim novel, the narrative voice bogs the plot down. Perhaps it’s a matter of taste, but for this reader, the style, which verges on patronising, became very annoying. At other points, the narrator seems to be addressing “my dear Swan,” so I suppose that’s who he’s telling the story to. Just in case our minds begin to wander with the many digressions, at other times we are yanked back in–by the narrator again with admonitions to “pay attention.” I wanted to respond with “well then shut up and get on with the story, damn it.” I really liked the flawed all-too-human character of Brenner, but the intrusive narrative style grated on my nerves. I’d hazard a guess that the narrative intrusions picked up as the novel wore on, but that might be an incorrect perception, and it may be true that the narrative simply obfuscated the crime solution. I’m sure that other readers would react differently, and for the first 80 pages or so I really enjoyed myself. Would I try another? Probably.

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The Snowman by Jörg Fauser

“You’re done for,” Blum told himself, “you’re all washed up here on Malta–with a dentist’s drunk wife on your arm, a left-luggage receipt from Munich Central in your pocket, stolen from a wig worn by a wop to whom you were planning to flog 200 porn magazines, and an Australian with one lung who can’t shake off his nightmares there among the palms in front of you.”

Continuing with German literature month cohosted by Caroline and Lizzy, I selected The Snowman by Jörg Fauser for my crime pick. There are three reasons for this 1) Caroline has recommended the book more than once 2) It’s published by Bitter Lemon Press and I’ve had good luck with their titles. The third reason? The blurb on the back of the book starts like this:

Blum is down on his luck. No one in Malta wants to buy the classy collection of Danish porn mags he’s trying to unload discreetly.

Now that got my attention…

So, the novel begins with Blum, a strange character in his late thirties stuck in Malta with very little cash, but with a collection of Danish porn magazines “like vintage wine” to sell. It’s not exactly clear how Blum ended up in Malta or where the magazines came from, but it’s screamingly clear that the police don’t want Blum around. Blum’s unsavoury shady past follows him like a lingering bad smell. His one-month tourist visa expires in just 3 days, and he’s told to get out or he’ll be picked up and carted off to jail. But Blum needs money, and that means he has to unload the magazines as soon as possible.

Blum is at that dangerous stage in life when his crimes and cons have become increasingly small-time, yet he still dreams of the big score. As fate would have it, a series of circumstances finds Blum holding 5lbs of uncut Peruvian flake–considered by some to be the very best cocaine in the world. It has a street value of about $600,000, but Blum learns that if you’re not a drug dealer with connections, it’s very hard to unload that much product. Sure, people want a free sample, and some will even spring for a gram or two but that doesn’t help Blum in his long-term plans to escape to some exotic location–say, the Bahamas:

He went back to the hotel, stuck the locker key to the inside of the lavatory cistern, stared at his money. He was going to be forty next week, and here he was in this room in a run-down hotel, unable to turn five pounds of cocaine into ready cash. And if he did, then what? He saw himself at forty-three, at forty-seven, at fifty-two, in other rooms, but all of them alike, with a shirt hanging on a dryer, a fly buzzing against the lamp, a radio playing “Spanish Eyes”, sirens howling, the level of whisky in the bottle going down, his heartbeats coming faster, and a telephone that didn’t ring.

The Snowman is heavy on atmosphere and character as the plot follows Blum’s inept and increasingly paranoid attempts to sell the cocaine. He travels from Malta to Munich, onto Frankfurt, and then Holland and Belgium, living in one dank, seedy hotel room after another and discovering that “by comparison, even the porn trade was a high-society occasion.” He has the urge to flee but lacks the funds to do so; he also fights the impulse to hide, but he can’t do that as he needs to unload the coke, so he’s caught in a dilemma: he has to take some risks to make a sale, but every time he lands a potential customer, he’s exposing himself to danger at the hands of the cocaine’s real owners. After one sordid deal after another, he eventually comes to some realizations about the drug trade:

Apparently with coke you didn’t lose your mind until you lost control over the dosage, but perhaps as a dealer you lost your mind if you lost control over your trade.

Blum strikes up a relationship of sorts with a grubby blonde named Cora who reminds him of Brigitte Bardot “gone to seed”:

You can’t hide with five pounds of coke, not if you want to make money out of it. And now he’d landed himself with a blonde too, a tarty pot-head, probably with the police after her, but she was what he wanted. At twenty he’d dreamed of such blondes and jerked himself off. Now at forty he finally had one, even if she was shop soiled and run-down. But it was never too late for blondes.

Cora claims to have connections in the drug trade, and so Blum takes her along for the ride.

 Author and journalist Jörg Fauser, according to the novel’s insert, kicked an addiction to heroin but was killed July 16, 1987 when he “wandered” out on the motorway. He’d been celebrating his forty-third birthday. The Snowman (which was made into the film Der Schneemann) is strongest in its depiction of the seedy underbelly of life –the cheap hotels, the filthy toilets– in every city Blum travels through, and there are some passages (including one about copulating cockroaches) that creates the urge for a good hot shower.  There’s an intense authenticity to these scenes, and a sour truth to Fred’s realization that he’s small-time for a reason.

Translated by Anthea Bell

“Stay happy on a small scale gentleman, because happiness is the most expensive drug of all.”

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More Beer by Jakob Arjouni

“The most revealing thing about a murder is its motive. And the most revealing thing about a motive is the victim. It’s as simple as that.”

I have read a number of books that indicate a surprising lack of basic knowledge when it comes to writing about so-called eco-terrorists. These ‘thrillers’ include fictional characters who are activists engaged in acts of sabotage against, let’s say, laboratories that conduct experiments on animal subjects, urban sprawl, or slaughter houses. The authors of such books frequently choose to ignore the basic tenet of Ecotage and the direct action performed by environmental groups such as ALF and ELF–that is destruction to property and not to human life. So with those reading experiences in mind, it was simply refreshing to come across More Beer, a German crime novel written by Jakob Arjouni.

More Beer is the tale of a German/Turk PI named Kemal Kayankaya who’s roped into a very messy case. This is an ecotage case in which four young activists from the Ecological Front raided a chemical plant and blew up a waste pipe. Chemicals from the Bollig plant had been discharged into a nearby lake for some time, and several children in the area “developed strange skin problems” as a result. In spite of the fact that the Bollig plant could be forced to pay damages to the families of these children, no substantial change had been made to the chemical plant procedures. It is business as usual for the Bollig plant, and the ecological activists decided to raid the plant and blow up the waste pipe “to get the debate going again.” But something went wrong, and the owner of the plant, Friedrich Bollig was shot dead with “four bullets in his chest and head.”

According to eyewitnesses at the scene, there were five men running around that night, but only four were arrested. The men, who refuse to talk to the police and refuse to identify the fifth man, admit blowing up the pipe but deny that they had anything to do with Bollig’s death. According to their lawyer, Anastas, without the identity of the fifth man he finds it impossible to “mount a successful defense.” Anastas believes his clients are innocent of murder and admits that “these four are as far removed from killer commandos as a delegation of allotment holders would be.” 

In spite of some skepticism Kayankaya agrees to take the case. On the one hand, he finds it bizarre that ec0-saboteurs would end up killing someone, but then to say that these 4 men who were on site to blow up a waste pipe just happened to be there when Fredrich Bollig was murdered by someone else seems to be stretching any notion of coincidence. But there are some things that bother Kayankaya about the case. How did the police catch the saboteurs so quickly? Some eyewitnesses say that they heard shots prior to the explosion, but then supposedly Bollig went to investigate the explosion and was then shot. Kayankaya knows that he must investigate the conflicting eyewitness statements and establish the exact sequence of events and that he must also ascertain who would benefit from the death of Bollig.

While some people at the Bollig plant are very cooperative, others are hostile. As the investigation deepens, it also becomes increasingly dangerous for Kayankaya–especially since as a Turk he’s already subject to a large amount of prejudice from witnesses and from the police investigating the case.

More Beer includes some marvellous characterisations which raised the book above the norm for crime fiction. Here’s Hertha, the owner of Hertha’s Corner, a seedy 24-hour bar:

The proprietress pushed through the brown bead curtain, took my cup away and brought it back with a refill. Her ample bosom was swathed in a ball gown from which her arms, neck, and head protruded like sausages. Her rear was adorned with a purple satin bow, her wrists with fake gold bracelets. Her hair had been dipped in liquid silver. Hertha was the owner of Hertha’s Corner–open twenty-four hours. The place was large, dark, and empty. The dusty bottles behind the bar were lit up by fluorescence. Raindrops rattled against the dirty windowpanes. In one corner stood the table reserved for regulars, with its wrought-iron emblem, a wild sow waving a beer stein. Hertha was rinsing glasses. A fly landed on my mutilated sandwich. I lit a cigarette and blew smoke rings around the fly.

Kayankaya discovers more than one skeleton in the Bollig family closet, and it seems as though Bollig’s murder has managed to sway public opinion favorably towards the chemical waste company responsible for damaging the local children.  Kayankaya keeps digging and his investigation brings him to the attention of the sadistic Detective Superintendent Kessler–a man whose slight physical presence belies his nasty nature.

More Beer, part of a series of Kayankaya mysteries, is written with a light touch of humour with PI Kayankaya mainly amused by the bizarre characters he meets during the course of his investigation. These colourful locals include the heavily-tanned, merry widow Barbara Bollig,  and Nina Scheigel, the vodka-guzzling wife of the night watchman. Everyone, it seems, has something to hide. 

Translated by Anselm Hollo

Review copy courtesy of Melville House Publishing via netgalley.

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Filed under Arjouni Jakob, Fiction