Written by Alexander Hartung, translated by Steve Anderson — Until the Debt is Paid was Alexander Hartung’s second novel in German, and the first to feature his Berlin detective Jan Tommen. After a weekend of hard drinking, Tommen wakes up with the mother of all hangovers and gaps in his memory. He’s also the principal suspect in the murder of George Holoch, a prominent judge. His only alibi is his girlfriend Betty Wendsten, but she dies in an apparent suicide and then another seemingly related murder occurs. Tommen needs to go underground and try to prove his innocence as he’s hunted by his police colleagues.
This is where the magic of the book is revealed. Tommen calls on the help of a random group of acquaintances – all social misfits – to help him. What develops is not only a shocking tale of sexual exploitation and revenge, but one of the most accomplished character-driven thrillers you will have read for some time.
It might remind you of Arne Dahl’s Intercrime series, where a set of disparate detectives band together into an unusual alliance. However, Tommen can’t call on his police colleagues for help. Instead, he turns to Chandu, a six-foot-six tattooed Rwandan bouncer with links to the Berlin underground. They are joined by Zoe, a nicotine-addicted medical examiner with a spiky attitude, a talent for derogatory one-liners, and unsuitable footwear. She gets involved purely for her own amusement. Making up the foursome is Max, a computer hacker lacking in social skills who owes Tommen a favour or two.
The interactions between Chandu and Zoe are particularly interesting to read, though the scenes involving all four are entertaining. Their snappy and sometimes cruel repartee flows off the pages. There is banter, aggravation and mild flirtation, but at the very heart of their relationship is a common loyalty and determination to get Tommen off the hook at all costs. Each character is very well drawn, but Hartung never loses sight of the group as a whole and their dynamic. This ads credibility to their loyalty to Tommen. The hunt for Tommen by one of his police colleagues, the uptight Detective Patrick Stein, is nicely played out as the story pivots on the cat and mouse game between them.
Initially, the murder plot seems to fall into the shadow of the characters and their relationships, but it later comes to the fore. This is a fast-paced and snappy thriller that gathers pace as the links between the victims are revealed. Hartnung has come up with some inventive methods of killing, so you may need a strong stomach for this book. As the plot progresses, Tommen discovers the extent to which he has been manipulated and implicated in these murders, and there is a good twist in the narrative to surprise us. I didn’t see it coming, and there is little more satisfying than being wrong-footed by a talented author.
With its lean prose, assured plotting and superlative characterisation, Until The Debt Is Paid is an incredibly satisfying read. A second book featuring Jan Tommen is now available in German entitled Vor deinem Grab (Before Your Grave) so hopefully it too will appear in English.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars