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Martin Rosenstock’s essay on Swiss Crime fiction in Crime Fiction in German discusses the works of Hansjörg Schneider and Urs Schaub as contemporary examples of the form.  As neither have been translated into English, I turned to Martin Suter, who won the Friedrich Glauser prize in 2007. Curiously his winning novel, Der Teufel von Mailand (2008) has yet to be translated.  So I started with The Last Weynfeldt, published in 2008, translated by Steph Morris, and finally published earlier this year  by New Vessel Press.

imageThe Last Weynfeldt is not, as I expected, the painting on the book jacket, but the protagonist, Adrian Weynfeldt, an art expert and a very rich bachelor in his mid-fifties.  Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he has been collecting and inheriting even greater wealth ever since.  Impeccably mannered, polite and good-natured, his money has protected him from the unsavoury ways of the world resulting in a naïvety that endears him to many and yet opens him to exploitation by more unscrupulous characters. He has many acquaintances from the younger generation of artistes and such like,  but as the novel progresses it becomes clear that they tolerate him only because he is happy to be finance their dinners, art projects, films, etc.  He knows this too, but remains happy to accommodate them.  Money really is no object to him and their communal dinners  at least provide him with some company.

A singleton following a tragic love affair in his youth, he is usually very circumspect when it comes to the opposite sex.  Yet all that is tossed to the wind when he meets Laura, an off-balance and unpredictable woman, who reminds him of his lost love.  You’d think the warning bells would sound when she threatens to throw herself off his balcony following their first night together. (You can read an excerpt about that here.)

Laura is a grifter and she keeps him at the end of a string, dancing to her tune.  When she enters into a partnership to blackmail Weynfeldt out of millions, it is hard not to worry on his behalf.  Whatever could she have on him to give her such ambitions?

This is where the painting comes in.  In a parallel development, Weynfeldt is approached by a family acquaintance to auction a painting for him.  The rub is the painting at the auction is most likely a forgery with Weynfeldt fully cognisant of the fact.  Why would a man of  Adrian’s integrity do such a thing risking his reputation and career, the only things that give his life meaning?  Has he fallen into the trap that has been set for him?

Suter pulls some lovely sleights of hand here with an obvious nod in the plot to Stefan Zweig’s The Invisible Collection. I also learned much about how to detect an art forgery, and I was really fearful for Adrian (as a result of Suter’s Zweig-like psychological analysis.) Thankfully the author had a denouement up his sleeve that still makes me chuckle.  It’s a brilliant ending to a gentle yet fascinating crime novel.

And I will definitely seek out more, if not all, of Suter’s oeuvre.

And so to chapter 4 of Crime Fiction in German and Martin Rosenstock’s essay on the genesis of Swiss Crime fiction through Temme, Loosli, Glauser, Dürrenmatt to contemporary proponents of the form Hansjörg Schneider and Urs Schaub. (Authors in bold have been translated into English.)

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Translated by Joel Agee

When it came to my own reading for this chapter, I had to make a beeline, despite the horrendous book cover, for Dürrenmatt’s Inspector Balach’s Mysteries given the fulsome praise received from fellow #germanlitmonth bloggers Grant and Jacqui. However, going back through the #germanlitmonth annals, I note that Anthony was less keen.

Dürrenmatt’s Inspector Barlach is an old man approaching not only the end of his career, but also the end of his life.  Suffering from stomach cancer, he is in need of an urgent operation to give him an extra twelve months. This infuses the two novellas with an existentiality and a philosophical leaning that are more important than the plots.  What drives Barlach to continue despite his personal difficulties?  A good, old-fashioned belief in the necessity to execute justice.  What methods does he use? Good, old-fashioned gut instincts, which serve him well when his judgment is on top form.  Conversely they put him in great peril when he makes questionable decisions.

A young promising police officer is murdered in the Judge and His Hangman.  Barlach is assigned the case together with Tschanz. Barlach has a firm suspicion from the off, and Tschanz is offended that he will not share it.

If the person I suspect is, in fact the killer, you will find him in your own way – which, unlike mine, is impeccably scientific.  And if I’m wrong, you will find the right man, and there will have been no need to know the name of the person I falsely suspected.

And so the game begins, will Tschanz vindicate Barlach’s hunch or will new-fangled scientific methods disprove it? It is, of course, not quite that simple because in the course of the investigation, paths cross with an old adversary of Barlach’s – Gastmann, who once murdered a man in front of Barlach’s eyes, but Barlach could never prove it.  Knowledge is not enough to proesecute – nor is a hunch.  Empirical evidence is needed and Tschanz goes about seeking it and finally providing it, though not quite in the manner he envisaged.  And yes, Barlach’s hunch is vindicated.

My problem with this is that we don’t understand how that hunch was formed until the final denouement by which time it all feels a bit Holmesy or Poiroty i.e Barlach is a know-all  and it all feels a bit too convenient.

And I have even more problems with Suspicion, the stronger of the two novellas. While recovering from his surgery, Barlach comes across a picture of a Nazi doctor operating, without anaesthia, on a prisoner at Stutthof concentration camp.  Dr Nehle may still be practising at a private clinic as Dr Emmenberger.  Barlach sets about gathering evidence to prove that the two men are one and the same, amd once he is reasonably certain, he arranges for himself to be transferred to Dr Emmenberger’s clinic.

Quite what he hopes to accomplish there is beyond me – particularly in his weakened bedridden state, and without the backing of the police force (he has been retired due to ill health.)  But go he does and immediately falls into mortal peril.  Emmenberger knows he’s coming and what for (though it’s not explained how), and has no intention of letting his captive leave the clinic alive.  The second half of the novella is horrendously tense, due not only to Barlach’s impending death but to the intended method of dispatch.  Barlach will suffer the same torture as Nehle’s concentration camp internees ….

At this point I feel Dürrenmat becomes a victim of his own success, having written Barlach into such a tight corner, the only way out is by divine intervention – or something pretty similar.  I’m afraid my eyes rolled at the convenience and unreality of it.

It seems my mistake is to expect Dürrenmatt to stick to the narrow confines of his chosen genre.  Sven Birkerts in the Chicago Press introduction states that Suspicion is  a fairy tale that not even the dark-minded Brothers Grimm could have conjured on the page.  I can follow that because even the best heroes need some kind of fairy godmother to help them overcome the odds. Martin Rosenstock also points out that these mysteries, written in the 1950s, are morality tales set against Swiss feelings of vulnerability to Nazi infiltration. The inspector’s world-weary decency casts out the corrupted members of society and re-establishes a precarious moral order.  Seen in that light, I hope Dürrenmatt wasn’t saying that decency is living on borrowed time.  Convenient intervention notwithstanding, by the end page Barlach has only twelve months to live.

My previous post inspired by Mrs Peabody’s overview of Crime Fiction in German discussed the controversy re the identification of the first crime story in world literature. (Clue: it wasn’t written by Edgar Allen Poe.)  Today I’m on firm ground as Augusta Gröner’s Detective Müller is the acknowledged first police detective in German crime fiction.

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Translated by Grace Isobel Colbron

While reading The Case of the Golden Bullet (1895) I was struck by how Joseph Müller’s  personality differed from his contemporary, Sherlock Holmes. (Refreshingly so – I simply cannot stand SH.)  The Secret Service Dectective of the Imperial Austrian Police is a humble-looking little man, with a modesty of disposition and expectation. He knows his place, but when he gets the scent, he is unstoppable and extremely skillful.  Yet as his chief acknowledges his peculiarity is that his genius -for the man has undeniable genius – will always make concessions to his heart just at the moment when he is about to do something great – and his triumph is lost.

All of that is evidenced in this case in which Müller links a death, previously categorised as suicide, to the death of a professor shot by the golden bullet. His name would be made and cleared of the cloud that has been hanging over him from the start of his career, but then his heart – in the shape of sympathy for his prey – gets in the way.

This is not the first time I have enjoyed meeting Joseph Müller.  The first time was 5 years ago – 5 years- how time flies when you’re buried in a blogger’s TBR.  Back then I said I enjoyed the traditional feel of the narrative and wanted to read a full length Müller novel.  After this second outing, I still do and I will.

I returned to Ursula Poznanski’s work much more promptly, after her YA thriller Erebos was narrowly pipped at the post for my read of 2015.  Five, published under the name Ursula P Archer in the UK (I would love to know why), is the only other work of her quite considerable oeuvre to have been translated into English.  (Again I would love to know why.)

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Translated by Jamie Lee Searle

Five is brilliant but gruesome and as far from Groner as is possible to imagine.  When I recommended the novel in this year’s #germanlitmonth announcement, I had forgotten quite how gruesome it was in places and have since worried that those who picked the novel up might have found it offputting.  My mind is now at ease as both Viv and Caroline both found the novel as compelling as I did.

What kept me reading past the grisly, though non-gratuitous, bits was the structuring of the novel around geocaching – a modern day form of treasure hunt. (More here.) The game begins, when a body is found with geographical coordinates tatooed onto the soles of her feet.  These coordinates are the location of the first geocache containing a body part and the coordinates to the next geocache.  Thereafter it gets more difficult with clues in the form of riddles leading to people, with no obvious connections, who are murdered once they have been identified. How are the detectives ever going to get one step ahead, particularly with the pace accelerating to the point of breathlessness in the second half.

Am I allowed to say that this is a seriously puzzling first case for Salzburg detectives Bea Kaspary and Florin Weininger, and one they and I are unlikely to forget. The use of technology and games, employed to such brilliant effect in Erebos, serves Poznanski well once more and she has certainly left this reader wanting more.  The good news is that there are two further volumes in this series, though neither has been translated.  Oh dear, I’m going to have to read them in German (not necessarily a bad thing.)

Welcome to Krimi week at #germanlitmonth and to the next stop on my real life #gapyeartravels itinerary.  Yet, as one wanders round the haloed Goethe and Schiller infused streets of Weimar, a more unlikely place for dastardly deeds is hard to imagine.  And yet here we are with the final part of Köstering’s trilogy written in homage to Weimar and its most famous literary resident.

Part One, Goetheruh, centred around Goethe’s house in the Frauenplan with a plot based on Goethe’s poetry, in particular, the Erlkönig.  The Anna Amalia library and the very real fire of 2004 was the key site for book two, Goetheglut, with Goethe’s papers providing the necessary clues.  The heinous act in this final part takes place in that most iconic of Weimarian landmarks, the National Theatre with a plot based on Goethe’s play, Clavigo.

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Interesting decision to mirror the plot on one of Goethe’s less popular tragedies. (Plot synopsis in German here.  Listen to it in English here.)  How is such melodrama going to translate into a 21st century plot line?

imageMoving forward 3 years from the events of Goetheglut, we are now in Weimar in the late autumn. (The onion market –  the reason for October’s visit – has been and gone.) The premiere of a new production of Clavigo at the National Theatre is only a few days away,  when the leading actress disappears off the face of the earth, and her second is hospitalised with a mysterious illness.  Fortuitously a stand-in is on hand – the wife of the man whose recently applied unsuccessfully for the directorship of the theatre.

Reinhardt Liebrich doesn’t help avert the fingers of suspicion by being a “Machtmensch” – a person who exercises power, holding all of his submissive acolytes in thrall – including Hendrik Wilmut’s cousin and childhood friend, Benno.  Benno has suddenly decided that local politics in Weimar is too small-town for him and decides to run for mayor in Frankfurt am Main at the expense of his marriage, if need be.  His motivation puzzled me.  It’s not clearly explained – mid-life crisis? blackmail perhaps?  – but his decision to dump his wife, who refuses to leave Weimar for Frankfurt (as would I, given the choice), provides the central conflict in the novel.

Actually it’s best not to know too many details of Goethe’s Clavigo because Köstering sticks very closely to Goethe’s plot and once you start identifying the modern day equivalents of Goethe’s characters, then the victims of events to come are easily identifiable.  On second thoughts Köstering wants you to know who is who.  The alter-egos are clearly signalled and once the literary sleuth, Hendrik, is identified as Beaumarchais, the tragic hero who kills his best friend, Clavigo, the plot thickens.

Because espresso-addict and Goethe-connoisseur  Hendrik’s personality simply isn’t compatible with that outcome, but who knows what could happen given the intense provocation to which he is subjected ….

Köstering’s Weimar trilogy, particularly this third installment, isn’t in any way high-octane.  It’s a puzzle rather than a thriller.  Köstering describes his beloved Weimar in detail (charming even in the rain) and dwells on the foibles of his characters (spelling out perhaps a little too much. I swear if Hendrik had brewed just one more expresso …).  The mystery of the disappearing actress wasn’t as obvious to solve as I have made out above, but it still wasn’t difficult. The language is everyday German rather than literary.

And yet I did enjoy Köstering’s modern-day interpretation of Clavigo, particularly the casting of Frankfurt am Main as the evil metropolis.  (Hyperbole, my own.) Why?  Because Frankfurt just so happened to be the next destination on my #gapyeartravels. (To be continued.)

Now I could pretend that these two reading choices were made because of their operatic connections, but that wouldn’t be truthful.  The fact of it is that I chose these books because of their connections with the first two destinations in my #gapyeartravels, Prague and Munich.  They also have a further connection.  The first was a recommendation from Denis Jackson, the translator I interviewed in 2015 for German Literature Month.  The second was translated by Mike Mitchell, interviewed in 2014.

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Translated by Leopold Loewenstein-Wertheim

In the words of Denis Jackson, Eduard Mörike’s novella, Mozart’s Journey to Prague (1855) is “a light-hearted tale of the composer’s journey from Vienna to Prague to attend the opening performance of the opera, Don Giovanni. It is Mörike’s supreme achievement in prose, clearly revealing Mörike’s spiritual affinity with the composer and the profound emotions aroused in him by his opera.”

Now I’m no opera lover – in fact, I have an affinity with Cora Dulz, the soprano-hating protagonist of my second read.  So much of the operatic hommage to Don Giovanni was lost on me.  Jackson’s point about spiritual affinity of the author with Mozart is an interesting one though, given that Mozart, at least the Mozart in these pages, comes across as immature and irresponsible, whose life would go off-track if it weren’t for the patience and virtues of his capable wife.  I know I’m not meant to judge it this way as Mörike’s purpose is to show, in a humorous fasion, how the real world conflicts with the demands of Mozart’s genius and talent.  Certainly it is Mozart’s preoccupations with his music that lead to him absent-mindedly picking an orange from a tree in the grounds of a stately home. A common man would have been arrested for theft but Mozart has his name to save him, provided he agrees to spend the rest of the day with the baron and his family. He does so, providing them with an exclusive preview of the opera which is to be performed shortly in Prague.

This is a charming novella, a loving homage to Mozart’s life and genius, though not really to my taste.  It is far too gentle …

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Translated by Mike Mitchell

… which cannot be said of the second book, one I read pre-blog and have since puzzled about why it is not better known.  Helmut Krausser’s The Great Bagarozy (1997) is a clever novel, full of black laugh-out-loud humour, concerning a psychiatrist in crisis and the devil who identifies her weak spot.  Dark and sticky like a tin of treacle,  I know it’s bad for me, but I can’t stop at one spoonful.

The non-opera loving psychiatrist Cora is bored, both privately and professionally.  The latter is evidenced during the first consultation with her new client, Nagy.  She is more concerned with her post-shift shopping list than with his woes.  But it takes only a couple of sessions before she is reeled in and finds herself obsessed with this ambiguous character claiming to be the Devil incarnate.  Nagy can certainly read her better than she can read him.  She starts overstepping professional boundaries – though not as many as she would like, given that he awakens a desire in her that she has not felt for years. Where will this obsession lead?

Her obsession mirrors her client’s with Maria Callas.  Nagy’s zest for life disappeared after her death, at which time he had been following her – incognito – for years.  At one point he claimed to have been her agent, named Bagarozy; at the time of her death, her pet black poodle. This latter position obviously gave him access to the most private parts of her life and many intimate details of Maria Callas’s life are woven into his story.

But can this deluded tale possibly be true? “There’s a rational explanation for everything”, claims Cora’s husband at one point, a prosaic man whose only quirk is to collect stories of bizarre deaths. (Foregleams of what is to follow.) Really?  That’s the question at the centre of this novel and Krausser demonstrates a brilliant sleight-of-pen in balancing the rational and supernatural to keep the reader guessing.  It’s a skill worthy of Bagaroz himself, Nagy’s stage magician alter-ego. All I’m saying is that Cora does lose her soul but I won’t reveal how or whether it is to a devil of a man or to the devil with a capital D.

So Maria Callas is the operatic connection here.  The connection to my #gapyeartravel destination of Munich is not that the novel is set there, but that the author lives there.  This  may be a tenuous link but so too is the Prague connection in Mörike’s novella.  We never reach that beautiful city in those pages either.  No worries, I had better luck aligning my travelling and reading destination in my next review.

Would I cure you?

More prescriptions from book fair visitors in English, German and Flemish available on the Book Fair’s Guest of Honour (Flanders and the Netherlands) channel here.

imageTranslated from German by Jamie Bulloch

It’s not particularly difficult to run a successful bookshop, thought Valerie: a grasp of the rudiments of business, a sensible plan, a little skill in negotiation, a couple of contacts and a large portion of magic.

Well, I’ll let the booksellers among you determine if that is all it takes, but to me there’s something elemental missing from that list of ingredients: a love of books.  That is something that Valerie’s Aunt Charlotte, the book shop owner, possessed in spades. But when Aunt Charlotte goes missing and Valerie is seconded in to liquidate the shop, there’s a tension between the recently qualified business administrator and the (seemingly) chaotic ethos of the elderly bookshop owner.

As she enters the shop to take on the challenge –

Valerie dropped her bag to the floor and tried not to fall immediately into despair.  Where on earth to begin?  This shop was like a dress that the elderly woman had tailored to fit her life. It may now have fitted her perfectly, but for Valerie’s youthful existence it was uncomfortable, shapeless and wholly impractical ….. “What have I let myself in for?”, she sighed.

In short, a life-changing adventure, the likes of which she, a non-reader at the start, could never have suspected.    As there aren’t many customers, Valerie finds herself reading more and more of Aunt Charlotte’s carefully curated though erratically shelved selection. This heralds the transformation of the sterile business administrator into a warm-hearted discriminating book lover.

She never stood a chance, did she? We bookworms know that the objects of our affection are so much more that the sum of their physical parts, that they can change not only the reader, but the world.  That is what happens to Valerie’s world during her very special year, with admittedly a touch more magic than I would have wished in the form of a book whose ending is to be determined by Valerie herself.

But the spell works in a charming fable about the magic of bookshops and the pleasures and benefits of reading. Aunt Charlotte’s shop, Ringelnatz & Co, is a tribute to, though not operating the same business model as, the world famous Parisian Shakespeare & Co. The books Valerie reads provide an appreciative whistlestop tour through world literature and unexpected therapy for the young woman who, initially, had absolutely no idea that she had lost her way.