It had been a normal day at work. Monika was locking up, ready to head home, when the man arrived. She didn't even see his fist until it was far too late...
Bundled into a car, tied up and taken in darkness to an old mill in the thick of a forest, she has been flung into a bunker. It is only now, as time passes and she sees her attacker in the light, that she notices the startling resemblance to someone from her very dark and buried past, someone she never wanted to see again.
You could not, ever, accuse Andrea Maria Schenkel of wordiness. Her books are masterpieces of succinct, pointed fiction, leaving a lot to the readers imagination, conclusion or simply confusion. Which is part of what I love about these books - that feeling, when finished reading, that you might just not have the whole picture. That there are things that you may have to think about, that not everything is black and white, and that the grey is often very dark, very cloudy, very textured grey.
BUNKER is a particular example of that wonderful act of leaving the reader to decide, to extrapolate, to conjecture, to muddle through. We're given the details of a kidnapping (or is it), we're given multiple viewpoints, and we're given precious little detail. In exchange the reader does have to work, there's a lot of different possible interpretations in here - unreliable narrator perhaps? In which case which one? Past catching up with the present? Mistaken identity? Pointless act? Act of revenge? You decide.
Hard work undoubtedly. Not a book for fans of the carefully laid out plot, or for a clear who / what / when / why type resolution. But I've personally been a fan of Schenkel's writing from the very first book, although to be honest, they aren't books I recommend to others easily. I find their obtuseness rewarding, the amount of work I have to put in to considering what just happened an exciting part of the overall experience... but they aren't straightforward. There are hidden depths in BUNKER that you might find you have to work for.
SILENCE - Jan Costin Wagner
A young girl disappears while cycling to volleyball practice. Her bike is found in exactly the same place that another girl was murdered, thirty-three years before. The original perpetrator was never brought to justice -- could they have struck again? The eeriness of the crime unsettles not only the police and public, but also someone who has been carrying a burden of guilt for many years...
Because SILENCE is the third of the Detective Kimmo Joentaa series, I read it third. (Rebellious you may well think, not paying attention is a much better explanation).
One of the things that I most love about these three books - ICE MOON, SILENCE and THE WINTER OF THE LIONS is the sheer beauty of everything. The place, the culture and the emotion. Sure Joentaa is in deep mourning for his wife who died too young, but there's no sense of self-pity, this is simply a beautiful example of a man struggling quietly, emotionally, but with enormous dignity to find his path, to resurrect his life.
Whilst he's doing that, aspects of real life must go on - in SILENCE it's about the past and the present - the long unsolved abduction, rape and murder of a young girl, and a copycat crime - the same spot, same method, same outcome. None of which seems to make sense given the great time gap between the two awful crimes.
One of the things that stays with you from all of these books is the gentleness, almost delicacy with which Wagner handles his characters, their places and the events that affect them. Everyone - parents, past and present police officers, even the killer are compassionately drawn. SILENCE is again a book more about why than how, and definitely about the after affects on so many participants - be they unwitting or complicit. It's a book about choices, it's a book about grief, and most of all it's a book about life. Needless to say, you've probably worked out, I loved this series - although I think, unlike me, you'd be best to read them in order to really get a feeling for Joentaa's journey in particular. These are books for those who are less interested in vengeance and action, and looking for something contemplative, compassionate and incredibly moving.
THE SINNER - Petra Hammesfahr
Cora Bender killed a man on a sunny summer afternoon by the lake and in full view of her family and friends. Why? What could have caused this quiet, lovable young mother to stab a stranger in the throat, again and again, until she was pulled off his body? For the local police it was an open-and-shut case. Cora confessed; there was no shortage of witnesses. But Police Commissioner Rudolf Grovian refused to close the file and started his own maverick investigation. So begins the slow unravelling of Cora's past, a harrowing descent into a woman's private hell.
As you can tell from the blurb above, THE SINNER is a whydunnit, as opposed to a whodunnit book, although that's way too simplistic a description. When Cora Bender stabs a man to death in front of family, friends, and a crowded park, nobody realises that she was originally planning to commit suicide. Bender is obviously not in a good place in her life, despite outward appearances. Rejected wholeheartedly by her husband immediately after the attack, it seems an open-and-shut case, which may only be mitigated by a plea of insanity. Except that Rudolf Grovian senses something behind Frau Bender's acknowledgement of her guilt and maniacal desire to declare herself guilty with no reasons or explanations.
It's partially Grovian's investigation into Bender's childhood and family life, and partially his patient and careful questioning of her that slowly draws out the truth. Bender's childhood is the stuff of nightmares - a desperately ill younger sister and a fanatical religious zealot of a mother who never hesitated to blame her first-born daughter for all of the younger sister's medical problems. Add a caring but sexually frustrated and ineffectual father, who whilst never sexually abusing his daughter, confronted her with her parent's sexual problems, and everything has combined to create a girl who is guilty, conflicted, and profoundly disturbed. Her closeness with her father creates a complex relationship with him, whilst he is kind and caring towards his daughter, his failure to take firm action in the face of her mother Elsbeth's more extreme behaviour makes him a weak figure, difficult to maintain respect, love and affection for. Bender's ill sister, Magdalena, should have died many times in her childhood, somehow managing to cling to life, she is the centre of her mother's world, swamping everything and everyone with her requirements, draining the families financial as well as emotional resources, isolating them. Eventually the two sisters seem to work out an understanding, a relationship, even love for each other, although, as with everything in this family, there's something not quite right.
Because of the way that Grovian goes about drawing out the story of Bender's background and therefore her reasons for violently killing a complete stranger, there's a lot of ground gone back over. As she constantly lies about her past, Grovian is forced to look for the sprinklings of truth within the lies and slowly and steadily disprove the lies, forcing Bender back and back over the same ground, coaxing the truth from the ultimate in unreliable narrators. Because of that narrative device, the pace is slow, emotional, repetitive and intricate. The reader is given every opportunity to share Grovian's frustration, but at the same time you also get a feeling for Bender's distress, her desperation. Whatever it is that she doesn't want known is held close, she's desperate to obfuscate, confuse, deny, avoid. Particularly interesting was the way that Bender's family members, in particular, are characterised. Seen, as they are, mostly from Bender's point of view, there's something misty about them, hesitantly revealing her father's ineffectiveness, her mother's madness, and her sister's memory. It's particularly interesting that Magdalena is both transparent, weak, seemingly just about incapable of even basic communication; yet she's ultimately revealed as a much stronger personality, capable of manipulation, more able than originally contemplated. Remembering that we were viewing Bender's family from her perspective, and the role that Magdalena's entire existence had such a profound affect on Bender - made it a particularly thought-provoking aspect.
THE SINNER isn't a straight-forward book. Part thriller, a most unusual psychological study, it wasn't an easy book to read but it was an extremely thought-provoking, worthwhile book to read.
THE WINTER OF THE LIONS - Jan Costin Wagner
Every year since the tragic death of his wife Detective Kimmo Joentaa has prepared for the isolation of Christmas with a glass of milk and a bottle of vodka to arm him against the harsh Finnish winter. However, this year events take an unexpected turn when a young prostitute turns up on his doorstep.
I cannot believe, firstly that I've left the last two books in this series unread for so long, and secondly I'd be daft enough to read the third, THE WINTER OF THE LIONS out of order. Not that it made a lot of difference to the experience. It's hard to use the word enjoyable when you're referring to any of the books by Jan Costin Wagner as they are so steeped in grief and brooding, although, there was just a glimmer that Kimmo Joentaa might be ready to move on a little. Even though the death of his wife is still the defining thing in his life, he is forced to look outside himself, despite it being Christmas, the time of year he most dreads.
Set in Finland, Wagner is a German writer with a unique sense of the culture and the country. His writing is pared down, emotional and dark. The plotting of the book is slow, often impenetrable, yet for this reader, it simply didn't matter. The storytelling really is astoundingly affecting and involving. Joentaa is magnificently morose, but without a feeling of overwhelming self-pity.
The first book in the series, ICE MOON, was a revelation when I first read it and I waited impatiently for the next to be translated. Then for reasons best known to my idiot self, I bought and then never picked up the next book in the series SILENCE. There really are times when I could kick myself, or at least put the book immediately on the bedside table.
ICE COLD - Andrea Maria Schenkel
Munich in the 1930s. Young women are being raped and brutally murdered. They are disappearing along the quiet country lanes outside the city, cycling to destinations they will never reach. A Party member by the name of Josef Kalteis is executed for the crimes, but is he really guilty? Could the murderer still be out there?
Whilst ICE COLD is the second book from German writer Andrea Maria Schenkel, it's the first book - THE MURDER FARM - that I have to start out mentioning. I still remember my reaction to that book - mesmerised, enthralled, vaguely stunned. Needless to say, trying not to set expectations for ICE COLD was a tricky undertaking.
Set in 1930's Munich, ICE COLD is the progression of a rapist serial killer. Various viewpoints are told chapter by chapter, each voice eerily intimate, and personal, distinguished by a change in font to give the reader a visual queue, as well as a clear change in voice. The killer moves aimlessly, passively through a life punctuated suddenly by extreme violence and depravity. ICE COLD tells a story that is brutal, hopeless, stark, bleak and extremely discomforting. It's dark, intense and extremely uncomfortable reading. It's also jarringly different in that there is no discernible plot, heading for a resolution or at the least, an explanation. This is a series of short, sharp punches to the readers sensibility, finalising in no resolution, no closure, no analysis, no neat ends and no explanations.
There are a lot of similarities to THE MURDER FARM, in the style, the structure and the tone of ICE COLD. But there's something much bleaker and more confrontational about ICE COLD. Just in case it sounds like this is a book that I hated, exactly the opposite is true. It's short, sharp, tight as hell, uncomfortable, strange, brutal, and extremely memorable.
CRIME - Ferdinand von Schirach
Crime is a collection of stories told by one of Germany’s most prominent defence lawyers. Some of the cases are strange, some bewildering and others heartbreaking, but all are told with genuine concern for those who have slipped through the protective nets of society.
The author of CRIME, Ferdinand von Schirach is a criminal lawyer in Berlin. He's also an extremely good storyteller.
The stories incorporated in CRIME (as the publicity material puts it) were specifically chosen to demonstrate the relationships between truth and reason, law and compassion. They are real-life cases from the author's own experience. The subject matter, frankly, is frequently much much easier to imagine as fictional - but they are not. Whilst it's clear they are tales chosen to trigger certain emotions and reactions in the reader, in von Schirach's hands, the telling isn't overblown or overtly manipulative. There's something restrained, dry, matter-of-fact in the author's storytelling which makes the subject matter striking, but somehow more palatable (for want of a better word). Palatable only in the reading mind you. Consideration of what is happening in each of these tales, on the other hand, is more challenging.
There's lots of things to find interesting about this book - not just the nature of truth, reason, law and compassion, but also the more practical elements - the way that the justice system works in Germany, the glimpses into the world of the criminal lawyer. More than once I finished one of these stories wondering how it is that people get themselves into these situations, and how they ended up on von Schirach's doorstep afterwards. Perhaps the first part of that statement is what the book does best - really makes you wonder / think / consider the nature of justice.
The only downside to the book is that it might be best to read in small snippets - a story at a time, and then give yourself some thinking time and then onto the next. I certainly have found myself drawn back to reading some of the entries again, which, for somebody with a lot of reading matter available to them, is about the highest praise I can think of.
DARK MATTER - Juli Zeh
Sebastian and Oskar have been friends since their days studying physics at university, when both were considered future Nobel Prize candidates. But their lives took divergent paths, as did their scientific views. Whenever Oskar comes to visit from his prestigious research post in Geneva, there is tension in the air, and it doesn’t help their friendship that he feels Sebastian has not lived up to his intellectual capacities, having chosen marriage and fatherhood as an exit strategy.
DARK MATTER is one of those books that I picked up with considerable happy anticipation, so was more than a little startled to find myself really struggling to get into the start of it. Until a point at which I found I wasn't struggling and was completely absorbed.
And I suspect that's very much what the book is set out to do. Set in Freiburg near the Black Forest, the book starts out with two men and their obsessions. Their friendship begins at University, studying physics - Sebastian, retains his love of physics opting for academia, sharing his love of physics with his love for his wife Maike and young son Liam. Oskar is less traditional, hanging onto many of the eccentricities of their university days - he goes onto research, pure physics. Despite a falling out between the two, they continue to meet on the first Friday of every month and debate - argue - discuss late into the night. Then Liam is kidnapped and Sebastian is told that he must kill a man to regain his son. Understandably his life shatters, he feels set adrift from everybody and everything and he makes some choices which seem to the reader, the outsider, inexplicable.
It's through the early phase of the book that I really found myself struggling - firstly with the relationship between Sebastian and Oskar which, whilst interesting, didn't seem to be telling me anything in particular, and secondly with how Sebastian, a supposedly intelligent man, managed to let himself be manipulated to that point (despite father love and the desire to do anything to protect your child, without giving the plot away, there are factors which seem inexplicable).
But enter the police Detective Schilf and things get really interesting - the book shifts focus from an almost mocking, frivolous tone into a profoundly emotional character study. Not just a character study, this book quickly evolves into one in which the reader is forced to consider some hairy questions - what would you do if you had weeks or hours to live, one final case, and a guilty man in extenuating circumstances?
It's also at this point that the structure of the book begins to makes sense - and those chapter introductions stop being slightly quirky (Chapter one in seven parts. Sebastian cuts curves. Maike cooks. Oskar comes to visit. Physics is for lovers. / Chapter four in seven parts. Rita Skura has a cat. The human being is a hole in nothingness. After a delay the detective chief superintendent enters the scene) and start to have a point - sometimes they ask a question / sometimes they state a thought to be explored / sometimes they just intrigue. All in all it's at this point that DARK MATTER stops being a slightly darker version of TV's The Big Bang Theory and starts to become a character study of depth, layers and great emotional impact.
All in all I'd have to say, stick with the early part of DARK MATTER. It's not crime fiction just for entertainment, and it's often confusing and slightly odd and there are parts of the book that will make you stop and think, and maybe back-track a bit. But this is crime fiction for thought provocation and boy does it manage to do exactly that.
ICE COLD - Andrea Maria Schenkel
Somehow the format that worked so well in "The Murder Farm" doesn't seem to have quite the same impact in ICE COLD. Whether it's because of the story of that the novelty of the unusual format isn't as fresh, I'm not sure.
Perhaps it was the blurb on the book jacket which asked the question, "but is he really guilty?" It is a question that maybe leads to false expections about the ending. I found myself none the wiser at the end of the book than I did when I first opened it. It could be more the fault of the publicists and powers that be who decide what goes on the blurbs, than the writer's. Whatever the reason I was left feeling quite unsatisifed by the ending of ICE COLD which wasn't present in "The Murder Farm".
THE MURDER FARM - Andrea Maria Schenkel
In a German village in the aftermath of the Second World War, Old Man Danner, his wife, their daughter, her two children and their new maid all lie dead. They have been brutally murdered with a pickaxe at their remote home, now known as 'The Murder Farm'.
THE MURDER FARM was one of the books that I purposely read as I was seeing the author at a Melbourne Writers Festival session. I actually picked it up to take on the train in with me - a journey of just on an hour in total. I can't remember the last time I was tempted to stay on the train and keep reading because a book was so good, but this book definitely tempted me to do so.
Based on true events, but with a different timeframe and a resolution (the true crime remains unsolved), THE MURDER FARM covers the brutal killing of an entire family. The family live on a small farm, on the outskirts of a small farming community, the place is quiet and enclosed and vaguely claustrophobic. The family themselves are also quiet, enclosed and vaguely claustrophobic - they are outsiders from the rest of the community. The father - Old Danner is a nasty piece of work, his wife devoutly religious and very standoffish, his daughter has a bit of a reputation. There are lots of rumours about the parentage of her son - as her husband ran off years ago.
The style of the book is unusual and it works unbelievably well. The story of the killings is slowly intertwined with "witness statements" - testimony of neighbours, workers and people in and around the area in the time leading up to the discovery of the bodies. The killer's own story is told - partly as his own testimony, partly in prayer. Time and time again, the style of the book has the author taking the reader almost to the edge - almost to the point where you can see who the killer is, and time and time again you're whipped back. Time and time again I thought I knew, but I wasn't quite sure. Ultimately, it is one of those books that has such a fabulously creepy, scarey, sobering, disquieting affect on the reader. It's voyeuristic. It's distressing that you're so close to these people. It's odd that you know that the killer must be from that quiet, claustrophobic little community - is probably one of the witnesses whose words you are reading.
When Andrea signed my copy of the book, she asked me where I was up to - I wasn't quite at the point where I knew for sure who the killer was. Her inscription was "I hope you like the killer, too." I did. I liked how the killer was revealed, and, for some strange reason in a book that absolutely enthralled, that was potentially disturbing and actually quite brutal, I liked the person as well.
THE RUSSIAN PASSENGER - Gunter Ohnemus
Bitter Lemon Press books are my not so secret passion. They have a list which just gets better and better with everything from the poignant, the extremely violent, confrontational and downright quirky. THE RUSSIAN PASSENGER is probably best put into the quirky basket, but don't let that give you any pre-conceptions about what to expect from the book.
It's a bit of a romp styling in some ways - Harry the ex-writer, now taxi-driver finds himself helping out one of his passengers. She's a rather attractive woman after all. But helping an ex-KGB agent and wife of a Russian Mafioso move a very very large amount of money out of the country is possibly not your average good deed done by your average taxi driver.
In amongst the scramble around Europe trying to avoid Sonia's husband and his henchmen there is a very poignant story told about Harry - his life hasn't been exactly straightforward, and the death of his little daughter and the teetering nature of his relationship with her mother haunts him on a daily basis. In fact most of life haunts Harry. Being chased by the Mafia almost gives him a point for being that perhaps he had lacked in the years since his daughter died; since he threw in life as a writer; since he took to the Buddhist road.
The great thing about THE RUSSIAN PASSENGER is that it's hugely entertaining. It's a great charging around romp, it's got confrontation and shooting, and corruption and a lot of close scrapes; it's got the pressures and difficulties of families and the nature of friendship. And it's got a tremendous character in Harry. Sonia is perhaps less clearly drawn out, her life is less discussed. Doesn't seem to matter so much, this is Harry's story.