This post was a long time in the “making” because I went back and forth with my decision and indecision to write this. Nice sentence, right? It reflects how I felt!
I read these three books when I was decades younger and at that time, they made an impact on me. After reading them, I kept coming back to them. Sometimes only reading the dialogue and skipping the rest, sometimes just reading my favourite parts or the case analysis – no matter what, I kept coming back. I wondered how I would feel about these books now and tweeted that I was going to blog about them. And then I went back on that because my readership is predominantly English speaking and the three books are in German. So I tweeted that as well. Yet my friend Debbie Green thought it should not matter and told me to write the post anyway. But to do it right, I felt I had to re-read them all. So I did.
I am not going to summarize the books here. If you don’t know them, there are plenty of book reviews and dedicated websites.
das Parfum starts with a description of the awful smells of the French 18th century in which Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born. His birth is symbolic for the rejection he will face throughout his life: starting with his natural mother who pays with her life for confessing the intention she had to “bear and abandon.”
What fascinated me, when I was younger, was the slow development of the criminal mind and the constant separation of human interactions and intentions, the compartmentalization of Jean-Baptiste’s thinking and of course, the cunning planning. Yes, he was an evil murderer but he was also highly organized, systematic, and ingenious. I still found that fascinating to read now. However, I did notice a different attitude towards the book. The page-long descriptions of smells now irritated me as many paragraphs seemed redundant. Somehow it must not have irritated me when I was younger because when I think back, I distinctly remember given the preference to the book in its original language over a translation exactly because of the descriptions. The ending of the book seemed unbelievable and yes, even ridiculous to me then. Now, I am disappointed that the talented author chose this way to end his book. Overall, I felt a disappointment after re-reading it – however, I can still recommend it.
The next book I re-read was “der Verdacht.” When I first read this book, I raced through it just to find out what would happen to Kommissär Hans Bärlach. Would he survive? The book instantly reminded me of “the Boys from Brazil” by Ira Levin. Just like Liebermann, Bärlach seeks out the Nazi criminal whom in both books has a medical background and both commit horrifying acts. The last murders in both books seemed to nod to the “Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allen Poe. As you can see, many fascinating links and connections – so yes, I loved the book. I re-read it frequently decades ago and hoped, especially after being disappointed with “das Parfum”, that re-reading “der Verdacht” would again be a great adventure into criminal minds, the Nazi era, the “Apfelschuss” and of course, the supporting characters, both female, explaining the actions of the doctor.
It did not disappoint! I was as mesmerized by “der Verdacht” as I was in my younger days. Only this time, I was more fascinated by Gulliver, one of the Nazi doctor’s victims, and his take on life. Just like back then, I tried to imagine Gulliver’s face, the agony he went through, the despair that led him and others to make such horrifying decisions because in the bleak hell of the concentration camps, this was the only light and a faint one at that. I tried to imagine whether I would be able to do the same, to endure what they had to obtain what we frequently take for granted: freedom. How desperate do you need to be to allow surgery without anesthesia? How desperate must you be to trust this Nazi doctor keeping his word that afterwards, he will nurse you back to health and help you regain your freedom? Would I be strong enough to witness such an operation, because that’s what the Nazi doctor demanded, making sure that you authorized him out of your own free will, after having witnessed one such operation. Free will … that didn’t exist, of course.
Gulliver’s words have more meaning now after having worked for years in the field of human rights. Gulliver, page 34 onwards, splits people up in two groups: tormentors and the tormented. The power of the few to torment the many and how, despite their bigger number, the tormented remain oppressed. The abuse, the greed, and the eventual decline of civility and humanity grabbed me again. This book is highly recommended reading!
The last book I re-read was “das Versprechen.” The book, made into the movie “Es geschah am hellichten Tag” was the second book I read from Dürrenmatt who was not quite happy with the movie and later rewrote the film script, releasing it as a book called “Requiem auf den Kriminalroman.” The movie’s focus was on the crime, but Dürrenmatt’s was on the investigators and in particular on Kommissär Matthäi.
Matthäi is at the height of his police career. He is polite, always punctual and perfectly presentable in his professional life. His personal life reflects a human side that he has not acknowledged and possibly never dared or cared to explore. He lives alone and for the past decades has been living alone in a hotel. No mention of a past life and no hints of a longing to have his own family. He gets an offer to set up a police department abroad but shortly before the scheduled departure, he gets a call about a crime against a child. As he first visits the crime scene, he is struck by the curiosity of children and how they follow him around. He has no choice but to be the one to tell the parents that their only child, a girl, was murdered. Before the mother collapses, she makes Matthäi promise to find the killer. Promising not on his word of honour, but on his happiness …
A local peddler is in custody. After 20 hours of continuous interrogation he collapses and confesses the crime. “Now please let me rest and leave me alone.” As soon as he is placed into a detention cell, he commits suicide. Matthäi goes back and forth with believing in the peddler’s guilt. It would be so easy since it closes the case and he could still make his scheduled departure date.
As he is about to board his plane, Matthäi spots children on the observation deck at the airport and then realizes for the first time the many mistakes he has made. He thought of the children near the crime scene as a nuisance, for silently following him around, instead of as curious little people. He approached the dead girls’ classmates as adults and when her best friend answered him, he analyzed her words as he would with an adult – dismissing the essence of what she said: the girl had met someone. And he gave her presents.
Slowly, with the help of a drawing the dead girl made of her meeting with “the Giant who gave her hedgehogs,” Matthäi re-investigates the crime and sets up an alternative, unconventional and possibly very dangerous method to try and catch “the Giant.” He makes progress but the more progress he makes, the more he feels a reluctance of the traditional police to hear him out, to support him until …
Matthäi’s personality changes as he does not want to give up on this unsolved murder. This time, his outward appearance reflects his inner turmoil. The ending vindicates him, but the price Matthäi paid was more than just his happiness.
Again, this book had me up late to finish reading it. I was again immediately caught up in the story and didn’t want to put it down before I read the last line. I felt the same impatience after Matthäi visited the classroom, not asking further questions and simply assuming too much fantasy – never once realizing that he should have asked the girl how she knew all this. The teacher was not helpful either by indicating the children’s age and that their answers were age-appropriate. The ending, told on a death-bed in an off-hand manner, angered me again. To save their own skin someone remained silent and merely told the killer off, instead of taking action.
And again, my heart ached for the victims but also for the police officer who was not supported like he should have been. This book is highly recommended as well.
Are there any books that influenced you? Did you ever re-read them? Let me know!
Happy reading, V