Translated by Rachel Ward — Unlike Erdinger or St Pauli Girl, German crime fiction doesn’t always travel as well as the country’s beers. However, the Chastity Riley series by Simone Buchholz has been something to behold. Beginning with Blue Night, Orenda Books has translated and published five of them so far and now adds The Acapulco to the list.
However, The Acapulco isn’t the sixth novel in the series. It actually belongs to an earlier set of Chastity Riley stories that take place before she’s moved to witness protection in Blue Night. The first of those books was published in Germany as Revolverherz in 2008, but this has been rewritten and updated by Simone Buchholz, and translated by Rachel Ward as The Acapulco.
Chastity’s first fictional case begins when an unidentified woman wearing a blue wig is discovered dead in Hamburg’s harbour area – Germany’s gateway to the world. She was drugged with phenobarbital, strangled and scalped. State prosecutor Chastity Riley is assigned to work with the police on the case but with no footprints due to recent rain showers and no DNA on the body there is little to go on. It’s up to Chastity to establish the woman’s identity and find her killer. It’s a good thing she has a knack for getting inside the head of a murderer.
Over the next few days, two more women are murdered in the same gruesome way and a shady character called Basso is also killed. What initially appeared to be a drug-related murder is clearly part of something more organised and more sinister. The murdered women had one thing in common – they were all dancers at The Acapulco, a club in the red light district at the top of Grosse Freiheit street.
This is Chastity’s world. She knows the girls who work the streets around Hans-Albers-Platz, and they trust her. In old school noir fashion, she is an investigator with a weakness for hanging out in dive bars. Having an ex-con and locksmith as a neighbour, who has his own connections in the criminal underworld, also helps. Klatsche, a man 15 years Chastity’s junior, is not only adept at gathering information but also at chipping away at her tough exterior.
Despite being estranged from her mother and losing her father to suicide when she was 20, Chastity is fortunate to have people in her life who care about her. There is Detective Chief Inspector Faller, who reminds her of Robert Mitchum. And there’s Carla, her good friend who runs the cafe Chastity frequents. The two women are close, and Carla, much to Chastity’s frustration, loves to play matchmaker. The potential candidate here is Zandvoort, an older man who owns a theatre. But as we come to realise, Chastity is a tough nut to crack – and sometimes rightly so.
At times Chastity is almost as hostile and unwelcoming as her surroundings. Buchholz excels at transporting readers to vivid, lifelike settings, whether it’s the red light district of Hamburg, Carla’s cafe or Chastity’s dreary prosecutor’s office. The author is a resident of the Sankt Pauli neighbourhood, which helps with her authentic portrayal of the area. When she desribes four different people riding their bicycles in colourful detail, it’s not just for the sake of creating a street scene, it’s a subtle commentary on the lifestyle of the city’s inhabitants. She expertly pins down a character’s appearance or the mood of a specific setting in meticulous detail, which is always interesting. There’s no unnecessary clutter here and the dialogue is to the point and succinct.
Chastity’s wry commentary, astute observations and cool disposition combined with the seedy Hamburg setting already have outstanding hardboiled potential, but Buchholz’s writing style, supported by Rachel Ward’s translation, elevates this crime novel even further. If Chandler and Hammet were alive, they might even stash their typewriters away.
The Acapulco, like the five other translated novels featuring Chastity Riley, is plenty of fun to read. Aside from the amusingly sharp one-liners and observations, the seemingly random chapter headings provide humorous pauses between the short chapters.
Whether you’ve been a Chastity Riley fan since Blue Night, or this is your first introduction, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy The Acapulco. I bet my fedora on it. And the good news is that there are four other early Chastity Riley novels from between 2010 and 2013 that Orenda Books hopes to translate and publish in English.
Also see our reviews of Beton Rouge, Mexico Street and Hotel Cartagena by the same author.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars