Written by Simone Buchholz, translated by Rachel Ward — If you haven’t read the first book to appear in English by award-winning German author Simon Buchholz, Blue Night, then I suggest you stop right now and go and order it. Admittedly, it is not essential to read the previous book in order to follow the action in this new one, but you will almost certainly want to read more by this author. Her quirky style may discombobulate you at first, but she is a true original in a crime fiction landscape which can sound very samey, particularly when it comes to police procedurals.
Featuring public prosecutor Chastity ‘Chas’ Riley, who is half-German, half-American and all prickly, this noir series is set in the rain-lashed, melancholy city of Hamburg. The contrast between rich and poor is probably stronger here than in any other German town. This provides fertile fodder for a critique of society which never fails to amuse and manages to avoid sounding preachy. Chas herself is a bit of an outsider because of her background, so she finds it easy to mix with all the different strata of society, including the bars and jazz clubs of the red light district of St Pauli.
One fine September morning a naked man is found unconscious in a cage just outside the offices of a major magazine publisher. He is injured and in shock. The cage is just big enough to fit a grown man if you fold him in half first. Worse yet, a crowd of people had gathered around, spitting at him, making no effort whatsoever to help or call the emergency services. It turns out that the victim is Tobias Rösch, head of HR at the publishing house and clearly not very much loved by the employees.
Just a few days later, it’s the turn of the publishing director to be found tied up in a cage. At first Chas and her new police partner Ivo Stepanovic think it might be an employee taking revenge for job losses at the company while the senior management team have been lining their pockets. But it soon becomes clear that there are other things connecting the victims – things from the past they would rather sweep under the carpet.
To be honest, the plot, although perfectly craftsman-like, is not the main reason why you would want to read this book. What makes the book stand out is Chas herself. She’s a tough nut to crack with a melting, compassionate interior and the highly evocative atmosphere that Buchholz creates. There are similarities to the American hardboiled private detective tradition: the world-weary asides, the barbed humour, the constantly dark, foggy urban landscapes. Yet, when the investigators drive to Southern Germany to search for more information about the victims’ backgrounds, the claustrophobic, curtain-twitching atmosphere of small-town Bavaria is even more frightening than Hamburg.
Above all, just sit back and enjoy the jazz-inspired language and riffs, the jumps and turns from personal to political to criminal. There are so many sparkling observations dotted across every paragraph, sentences that simply beg to be read twice. Here’s just one example of a throwaway remark to be treasured:
“It always strikes me that tourists in Hamburg look completely different from tourists in Munich or Berlin… Perhaps they think Hamburg is already on the North Sea, although that’s a good thirty to fifty years off yet.”
This book is to crime thriller what jazz music is to classical. With plenty of dry humour and a good old dash of despair, Simone Buchholz is an unconventional, refreshing new voice, the likes of which I haven’t heard in German crime fiction since Arjouni.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars