*** This review contains mild spoilers. ***
Translated from German by Jaime Bulloch
Oliver Bottini is a four time winner of the German Crime Fiction award. His novels are slowly making their way to the English language. Actually belatedly would be more accurate, because this is the second of the series (originally published in 2006j to hit the British market in 2018. It seems that British critics are as appreciative as the German ones. Zen and The Art of Murder is currently long-listed for the 2018 International Dagger. I loved it earlier this year, and begged Maclehose Press for a proof of the second novel, as soon as I realised they had been printed. I packed it in the suitcase to enjoy while I was in the Black Forest.
So, first things first. If you haven’t read Zen and the Art of Murder, I would advise you to do so. Because you have to know Louise Boni, the detective at the heart of these books, to be able to follow along. Bottini devotes many pages to Louise’s personal history and thought processes – in this second novel, she is a recovering alcoholic, dealing with the baggage from the first investigation, her ruined reputation and her messy family/love life. When she is finally given a new office, the picture on the wall refers back to the first case. Her thoughts, therefore, keep circling back to this, and another case prior to that, her feelings of guilt, etc, etc. I found it a bit overdone, indulgent perhaps, but also distracting. I can’t see a reader without knowledge of the first book following along at all.
Because there’s a lot to contend with in the current case. It starts with a shed fire. But what seems to be a straightforward operation is exponentially complicated when an underground cellar explodes killing one of the volunteer fire officers. The cellar, the presence of which was unknown, turns out to contain a cache of smuggled armaments. The tiny village of Kirchzarten (emphasis on the first syllable, that’s important) has made its way onto an international arms smuggling route.
The weapons aren’t new, but date back to the early 1990’s, the era of the Balkans War. This allows Bottini to incorporate echoes of that horrendous conflict, which become particularly poignant for Boni’s half-Croatian police partner. It seems that even though almost three decades have passed, that conflict still has victims to claim. But why are the weapons still in storage? Not to give too much away, there are new political machinations afoot (atuned to the fallout and complications arising from 9/11) for which these weapons would be useful.
The international connotations ensure the involvement of a substantial number of interested agencies. I can’t possibly list them all, but the number of acronyms is staggering and at times the text is hard to follow. (No more so than our modern world, you could argue.) Of course, all these agencies are vying with each other to solve the mystery, and Louise Boni turns out to be the most competitive of all.
Now I understand her motivations – she has something to prove, she has to battle the demons pushing her to the bottle. Her way of doing this is to forego sleep, to work round the clock shifts in an effort to keep temptation at bay. But anyone in their right mind would know that only sleeping for a couple of hours in four days doesn’t make for straight thinking. As one of her superiors says (not before time, I might add) her tendency to ignore protocol, not wait for backup, makes her a pain-in-the-backside to work with. She stretched my suspension of disbelief to snapping point, I’m afraid,
There were other plot elements that I couldn’t swallow either. (The conflab between ex-Yugloslavs leading to the murder of the police officer, for example.)
While the novel is full of ideas and themes, Bottini shows a tendency of delivering in detail on everything, making no distinction between the important plot elements (Louise’s ongoing daily battle with her demons) and subsidiary ones (the vilification of the farmer, Hans Riedinger). At the heart is an examination of sociological ethics, which asks the tough questions. Is it morally justifiable that in order to maintain our security, our services use the same questionable tactics as the enemies we despise? Is political idealism always bound to fail? All of this is vividly written, it’s just that Bottini circles round and round, repeating arguments again and again, and I got really tired of him telling me how tired Louise Boni was. The result is a baggy novel that is not always as scorching as the summer of 2018 has been.
That said, I remember Mark Billingham once saying that it takes three novels for a crime author to fully find his form. Since Bottini won German Krimi awards with novels 1 and 2, the third is going to be humdinger! And I will, despite my reservations above, find myself in the queue to read it.