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.
BLACK ICE - Hans Werner Kettenbach
Erica, an attractive local heiress, is married to Wallman, a man with expensive tastes. When she falls to her death near their lakeside villa, the police conclude it was a tragic accident. Scholten, a long time employee of Erica's, isn't so sure. He knows a thing or two about the true state of her marriage and suspects an almost perfect crime.
BLACK ICE is the first of German author Hans Werner Kettenbach's novels to be translated into English, and it's taken me from it's original publication date of 2005 to read it. Which is good in one way as there appears to have been more books since then. Which are now on my immediate buy list and I know that is probably going to sound very strange, as this isn't a particularly straightforward book.
Scholten, the long-time employee of Erica Wallman, isn't a pleasant man. He's probably one of the most unpleasant characters I've encountered in crime fiction for quite a while. And the book is told from his perspective so a lot of time is spent in the head of an unpleasant person. Whilst his redeeming feature seems to be that he is the only person who doesn't believe that Erica's death was accidental and he is prepared to do what it takes to prove that, his overall demeanour makes you wonder if anybody would ever care what he thought. But other people's opinions don't really matter to Scholten and he's absolutely obsessed with solving how Erica's husband killed his wife. It's quite a puzzle too as it appears that she has simply slipped into the lake near her holiday villa - her husband nowhere nearby, the victim totally on her own at the time. Yet Scholten painstakingly builds up a picture in his mind, and finds the pieces that he believes show that there was nothing accidental about the fall at all.
The tone that the book uses is very much set by Scholten's own voice. Grumpy, self-opinionated, self-obsessed, unhappily married to a disapproving wife, dour and surly, the book proceeds in a low-key, dour styling as a result. Having said that, there are some funny moments, as is there fragility and profound touches of melancholy. These are people for whom life, as they made it, hasn't lived up to expectations. But there's a single-minded purposefulness to everything that Scholten does that's claustrophobic, so personal to Scholten that the reader is left in a very uncomfortable position. There's no clear "hero" to barrack for. Just this unpleasant man who, aside from how much you dislike him, may, over and above everything else, just may have a point.
And then this man, this "hero", the one person that believes totally in justice for Erica Wallman gets distracted from the path of exposing the truth and ties himself up in a knot of catastrophic proportions. And the reader is left. Unable to decide whether a seriously unpleasant man has got exactly what he deserved. Or a woman's fate has been unjustly served because her hero turns out to be no hero at all. Either way - it's an extremely clever ending, full of meaning and immensely satisfying. But a warning, it's not neatly tied up in a bow and delivered up on a plate. Thankfully.
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.
GOAT SONG - Chantal Pelletier
Depressed doesn't do justice to the dripping, sad, obsessed melancholy of the magnificently complex Maurice Laice (More is less just being one of his nicknames). Maurice is just one character that stands out from the page, his boss - she of the totally obsessed with her sex life; Aline Lefevre is gay, out, proud and coarsely (but hilariously and in a strange way touchingly) vocal. Her sex banter drives Maurice crazy - partly from jealousy, partly from embarrassment, mostly because he's feeling his damn age and she's not!
At the core of the GOAT SONG though is a complex mystery - the two dead bodies discovered in the Moulin Rouge have been killed with startling brutality, the following death of a junkie is equally violent and Laice and Lefevre find that the downward spiral of Montmartre is deeper and dingier than they could have imagined. Of course there's a bit behind their desire to clean up the drug problem in their area - and those motivations are revealed as the investigation proceeds. As does the ongoing understanding of all the characters in this fabulous little book.
GOAT SONG is beautiful to read, provided you read it with French attitude. (Okay maybe this Australian's idea of that glorious, complex, deep, introspective, cynical, melancholic, hopeful, celebratory, attitude - but that's the feeling that you get from GOAT SONG). There's unfulfilled desire, fulfilled desire, questioning, sarcasm, friendship, hatred, tacky and the superb. And there's food and wine. It's a complex little book - and it's fascinating that so much happens in 176 pages.
INVOLUNTARY WITNESS - Gianrico Carofiglio
When a 9 year old boy is found murdered at the bottom of a well, an immigrant peddlar is accused of the crime.
Guido Guerrieri has had problems of his own, with a distingrated marriage, a bad dose of anxiety attacks and a life spiralling downwards, but he finds himself taking on the case of the Senegalese peddlar and withstanding the pressure of the local prosecutors for a quick and decisive "guilty" verdict.
This is a differently constructed book from a lot of crime fiction in that there is a real concentration on Guido and his life and problems. This concentration allows the reader time to get to know Guido, long before he takes Abdou's case and does his own thinking about the prosecution brief.
As Guido takes control of his own life, he starts to take control of the case of Abdou who seems to have been charged simply because he was a convenient African and a circumstantial case could be built.
NIGHT BUS - Giampiero Rigosi
Francesco is a bus driver and gambling addict. Leila is a hustler, picking up men in night clubs and robbing them. Francesco is having big problems with Bear, a debt collector who doesn't have that nickname for no reason. Leila gets more than she bargains for when she finds the key to a locker on a man she's in the process of robbing.
Following that key to the associated locker finds Leila involved in something much bigger than she could have expected. Francesco and Leila find allies in each other as Leila unexpectedly turns up on Francesco's bus late one night and in big trouble over the key, but able to help when Francesco comes face to face with Bear.
There is a lot happening in NIGHT BUS. There are a lot of people coming in and out of the story and there's a lot at stake for all of the players. Right to the end the story is intertwining and twisting around Francesco and Leila and the activities that Leila has accidentally exposed with the theft of the key. The pace really keeps moving and there is a sense of irony and fun in the storytelling that makes this an intriguing book.
There is also a deftness in character portrayal which was a joy. All of the "villains" are different, quirky, human. The heroes are accidental ones. The ones that do something daft in the first place and have to dig like crazy to get themselves out of their own crater.
Ultimately you'd have to call this a caper novel, a real pleasure - thoroughly recommended.