Winner of the Deutscher Krimi Prize 2016
Translated from German by Alexander Booth
When Ludwig Winther asks the recently retired Jakob Franck to have another look into the suspected suicide of his daughter, Esther, you have to ask why now? For reasons that are revealed only at the end of the book, he has decided the time has come for him to be released from the legacy of that nameless day, the day his daughter was found hanging in a public park, leaving no suicide note. A year to the day his wife commits suicide, her note leaving no room for doubt and an even darker cloud over her husband’s continuing existence.
Jakob Franck remembers the case well. At the time he had assumed the mantle of the bearer of bad tidings, and when he visited the Winther’s home to break the news of Esther’s death, Frau Winther was alone, her husband away on business. She staggered under the weight of the news, he grabbed her to stop her from falling, she flung her arms round him, he held her … and so they stayed for seven hours.
The incident is indicative of Jakob Franck’s extraordinary empathy, which is probably the reason why he agrees to take another look at the case. He’s not entirely sure that Ludwig Winther isn’t lying, but he can see the man’s pain, and, as a retired, divorced detective, understands his loneliness. His retirement is still recent enough for him to be able to call in favours from ex-colleagues. But Franck’s modus operandi is mostly to converse with former witnesses, now scattered from Munich to Berlin, gathering up their memories, the old rumours, the contradictions (Ludwig Winther’s picture of his teenage daughter is nothing like the truth of it) and fitting the pieces together using his greatest tool, his intuition. Corroborating his “findings” with his skill as a conversationalist and empathetic listener to unlock the truth.
Whether that makes for satisfying reading is dependant on the reader accepting the subversion of expectations. And being willing to take slow moving, psychological investigation instead of a full-on crime novel. I have to admit I’m in two minds about this. Not as a general rule, I’ll happily read both types of novel, but when Ani starts off with a particularly violent and traumatic crime before moving into the more measured Winther investigation, I have to ask why start it that way? Rhetorical question – it’s that let’s use the first chapter to hook them in trope. And, of course, Ani does tie in that incident (eventually) but it does feel oddly out-of-tune in what becomes a finely observed and moving tragic tale, with multiple victims, both dead and alive.
The circling around in Franck’s head in reflected in the repetition of the chapter headings. The dead, he says, do come back, whenever they want, they sit at the table with us and talk. We can’t walk away, we have to listen, hour after hour, the whole night. Then they disappear but we know that they’ll keep coming back, over and over again. This is particularly true when a death is unresolved. In The Nameless Day, Jakob Franck enables one of the dead to rest in peace, though questions remain as to whether the living will find their own.