Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri (tr. John Cullen)

First published in Spanish in 2005 with an English translation following in 2011, The Secret in Their Eyes was Argentine writer Eduardo Sacheri’s debut novel. If the title sounds familiar, that might be because the book was turned into an award-winning film. The original screen adaptation—which happens to feature one of my favourite actors, Ricardo Darín—picked up the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009. It’s been a while since I last watched the film, so the time felt right to pick up the book. I’m so glad I did. This is a first-rate novel—part psychological mystery, part exploration of corruption in the Argentine criminal justice system, but always engrossing.


As the novel opens, Benjamín Chaparro is retiring from his post as a deputy clerk in the Buenos Aires investigative court, a position he has held for over thirty years. After two unsuccessful marriages, Chaparro is a little weary of life—in short, he is a man not entirely comfortable in his own skin. A little unsure as to what he is going to do with the rest of his life, Chaparro decides to write a book: an account of the fallout from a brutal crime that has occupied his thoughts for the past thirty years.

Rewinding to May 1968, a beautiful young woman, the recently-married Liliana Colotto, is raped and strangled in her home in Buenos Aires. As the deputy clerk on duty at the time, Chaparro is required to attend the scene of the murder where he meets the police officer in charge of investigating the case, Inspector Báez. The crime leaves Liliana’s husband, bank clerk Ricardo Morales, utterly devastated.  As Chaparro watches Morales, this quiet, unremarkable man seems completely lost.

It seemed to me most likely that he was taking a mental inventory of everything he’d just lost. (pg.50)

It was as if Morales—once he’d cooled off, once he was empty of emotions and feelings, once the dust cloud had settled on the ruins on his life—could perceive what his future would be like, what he had to look forward to, and as if he’d realized that yes, beyond the shadow of a doubt, his future was nothing. (pg. 51)

As the case progresses, it gets under Chaparro’s skin. Three months down the line, there are no firm leads or pieces of evidence on which to proceed, but Chaparro keeps the case file open despite the wishes of his boss. As far as the investigative judge is concerned, the fewer the number of active cases the better. During this time Chaparro keeps in touch with Morales, meeting him in a bar to discuss the situation every now and again. He soon discovers that Morales is too detached and too intelligent to find solace in anything other than the truth. Something about the young bank clerk’s melancholy demeanour, the way he appears resigned to suffer the harshest of blows in life, prompts Chaparro to do everything in his power to help him.

I tended to think that my work had made me immune to emotions, but this young guy, collapsed on his chair like a dismounted scarecrow and gazing glumly outside, had just expressed in words something I’d felt since childhood. That was the moment, I believe, when I realized that Morales reminded me very much, maybe too much, of myself, or the “self” I would have been if feigning strength and confidence had exhausted me, if I were weary of putting them on every morning when I woke up, like a suit or—worse yet—like a disguise. I suppose that’s why I decided to help him in any way I could. (pgs. 72-73)

As a result of his discussions with Morales, Chaparro uncovers a lead in the case and decides to do a little investigating himself. With the help of Inspector Báez, he identifies the murderer and so the case moves into a different phase. The police set off on the trail of Liliana’s killer, various developments happen, time passes. This is a slow burn story of a crime and corruption in the system, but it’s one that kept me gripped throughout.

Things are never straightforward, especially in Argentina in the 1970s, a time when the country’s Dirty War was rumbling away in the background. At one point, it becomes clear that Chaparro’s own life is in danger, a situation that prompts him to move away from Buenos Aires for a number of years until he can return safely. Our protagonist is also very open about his frustrations with the Argentine judicial system, an organisation that seems to favour assholes and imbeciles in equal measure.

During the previous three years in the court, few things had changed. We’d been able to get the wretched Clerk Pérez off our backs—he’d been promoted to public defender—but losing our boss that way had left a bitter taste, because it appeared to confirm our belief that a certain level of congenital stupidity, such as the kind he displayed like a flag, could auger a meteoric ascent in the juristic hierarchy. (pg. 192)

The chapters recounting the investigations into Liliana’s murder, the subsequent developments, and Chaparro’s relationship with Morales are interspersed with shorter passages in which our protagonist reflects on his own life. Or, more specifically, the questions he is grappling with while trying to write his book…not to mention his feelings for Irene Hornos, the current judge in the investigative court. Following his retirement, Chaparro remains in touch with Irene—the woman he has loved from afar for the last thirty years—visiting her at work during the twilight hours of the night.

With her lips, she’s asking him to explain why he’s blushing and squirming in his chair and looking up every twelve seconds at the tall pendulum clock that stands against the wall near the bookcases; but with her eyes, besides all that, she asking him something else. She’s asking him what’s wrong, what’s wrong with him, with him and her, with him and the two of them, and she seems interested in his answer,… (pg. 269)

The story also touches on Chaparro’s enduring friendship with his assistant, Sandoval, the very astute accomplice who plays a pivotal role in the investigation. At the end of the day, though, the core of Sacheri’s novel revolves around the inextricable bond between Chaparro and Ricardo Morales, a man who continues to radiate an unrelenting aura of loss.

When I saw Morales sitting there in front of me on that June afternoon in 1973, I understood that the brevity or longevity of a human being’s life depends most of all on the amount of grief that person is obliged to bear. Time passes more slowly for those who suffer, and pain and anguish leave definitive marks on their skin. (pg. 256)

The Secret in Their Eyes is an excellent novel, one that’s definitely worth reading even if you’ve seen the film. As is often the case, the book is much subtler and more layered than the screen adaptation. There are differences in emphasis between the two forms as the novel allows more space for character development along with greater exploration of the connection between Chaparro and Morales. Certain aspects of the narrative differ as well, but I’ve kept discussion of the novel’s plot to a minimum for fear of revealing any major spoilers. Ultimately, this is an intricate story from an author in complete control of his material. Highly recommended.

Interestingly, Sacheri worked as an office employee in the Buenos Aires sentencing court in the late 1980s. (In his introduction, the translator John Cullen explains that the Argentine judiciary at the time of the novel was divided into two jurisdictions: investigative courts and sentencing courts.) During his time in the sentencing court, Sacheri happened to hear an anecdote about an old case from the seventies. Even though the novel’s plot and all of its characters are entirely fictitious, Sacheri used the core of this anecdote as inspiration for a key element in his story. To say any more would take me into the realm of spoilers, but Sacheri’s own experience undoubtedly gives the novel an air of credibility.

Guy has also reviewed this book, which I read for Richard’s Argentine Literature of Doom event.

The Secret in Their Eyes is published by Other Press. Source: personal copy. Book 16/20, #TBR20 round 2.

A few favourite novellas for #NovellaNov


This month, the lovely Poppy (of poppy peacock pens) is hosting an initiative to celebrate the novella. It’s called #NovellaNov – Reading Novellas in November, and you can read all about it in the introductory post here. As part of this event, Poppy kindly asked me to put together a guest post on a few of my favourites, so if you’d like to take a look at my choices, just click here for the link.

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Susan Bernofsky)

The story running through The End of Days, the latest novel from German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, features an intriguing premise. By following five different variations of the life of one woman, the novel examines the role chance plays in our lives. In doing so, it touches on various aspects of European history in the 20th century from the hardship in the years following WWI, to the rise in anti-Semitism, to the period following the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s an ambitious narrative, and Erpenbeck pulls it off to very good effect.


The novel is divided into five books, each one covering a possible life of the woman in question. In the first variation of her life, our central character dies in her cradle just a few months after her birth in Galicia in 1902. (Galicia now straddles the Poland-Ukraine border, but was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time.) As her Jewish mother mourns the loss, her father (a Christian) drowns his sorrows in drink. Unable to come to terms with the tragedy, the father set sail for America, abandoning his wife in the process. The man’s arrival at Ellis Island’s immigration hall provides an opportunity for reflection on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a place where ‘German remained the language of democracy’ despite all the intermingling.  

The Kaiser, though, hadn’t selected the individuals to be let in; rather, he’d swallowed up entire peoples indiscriminately, making all of them part of his realm. Melancholia, madness, and unlawfulness remained at home—even after home became suddenly known as Austria or Hungary—and it did the monarchy no harm. Europe’s peoples, with or without wars, had always crisscrossed the continent, intermixing and seeking out new homes whenever their one bit of land produced too little or life became unbearable for some reason. But perhaps a coastline like this was a more naturally defined border. Here you could send the people you didn’t want back out on the water, even if it meant they would perish back home or simply drown at sea like surplus kittens. (pg. 50)

Meanwhile, the bereaved mother slips into a life of prostitution as a means of supporting herself after the desertion of her husband.

Each of the five variations of the central character’s life are separated by Intermezzos, short sequences of 4-9 pages in which Erpenbeck raises the question ‘but what if…’. For instance, what if the baby girl didn’t die in her cradle that night? What if she survived the crisis and her life continued? In effect, these intermezzos serve as a means of moving us from one version of the woman’s life to the next.

But if, for example, the child’s mother or father had thrust open the window in the middle of the night, had scooped a handful of snow from the sill, and put it under the baby’s shirt, perhaps the child would suddenly have started breathing again, possibly cried again as well, in any case its heart might have gone back to beating, its skin would have grown warm and the snow melted on its chest. (pg. 57)

As book II begins, we fast forward to 1919, and the seventeen-year-old protagonist and her family have moved to Vienna in the hope of finding a better life. Despite the end of the First World War, food is in desperately short supply, and the girl’s younger sister queues all day for meagre rations until her mother takes her place for the night shift. In this scene, the central character’s father reflects on the family’s situation.

For a brief time he had nurtured the hope that by moving to Vienna they would all be moving to an easier life, but then there’d been four years of war, a capitulation, and four months of hunger, and now all their provisions—their supplies of wood, groceries, hope—were running out, the emptiness in the pantry and storeroom equally great, the dirt floor showing through. Here in Vienna, his wife was reproaching him for one last thing: having married her, a Jewish vixen from the provinces, and not even a rich one at that. Something he had always refused to believe was apparently proving true after all: she was trapped in her Mosaic origins as if in a cage, knocking herself black and blue against bars. (pg. 79)

As for our central character, the weight of trying to find her way in an uncertain world proves too much to bear, and she enters into a suicide pact with a young medical student. Things don’t quite go to plan, but nevertheless the girl dies in hospital a few days later. And so we move to the next Intermezzo and another ‘what if?’ and her life continues once more.

In the third variation of her life, our protagonist is in Moscow. As book III opens, the year is 1938, and she is writing an account of her life in the hope of gaining Soviet citizenship. As the woman writes her story, we learn that she joined the Communist Party of Austria in 1920 where she met her husband, Comrade H. Both she and her husband were writers, keen to use language and words as a means of forging progress in the years following the War. Now, as she sits at her desk in Moscow, she knows that this written account might put an end to her life; alternatively, it might be kept in reserve, forcing her to live by it, ‘to prove herself worthy of it’. With her husband already under arrest, she must try to survive. Her aim is to save herself by writing her way back into life.

Now that her husband has been taken away, she knows that when she sits here putting her life to paper, she is playing not just with her own life, but with his as well, not just with her own death, but also with his; or she is playing against death—or does all this pro and contra make no difference at all? She knows that with every word she writes or leaves unwritten she is playing with the lives of her friends, just as her friends in turn, when they are asked about her, are forced to play with hers. (pg. 152)

I’ll refrain from covering the fourth and fifth lives in detail—I’m sure you’ve got the idea by now—but final instalment finds our protagonist living in a care home and suffering from dementia as her life draws to a close.

This impressive novel touches on various different ideas, and several of these are revisited throughout the narrative. Alongside the recognisable themes of personal sacrifice, loss, and the fragile nature of our existence, other themes emerge, too. Erpenbeck’s story highlights our desire to keep secrets from those who are closest to us as a means of protecting them from the heartache of knowing the truth. The daughter who doesn’t know her father was beaten to death by the Poles; the son who is told his father fell in the battle of Kharkov – these motifs echo and reverberate through the text.

Did keeping her misguided love a secret from her friend make her just as halfhearted and deceitful as her parents? It had done no good to keep the truth to herself either, for a truth remained even if it was never spoken aloud, day after day it went on doing what it had to. (pg. 89)

As I mentioned earlier, the intermezzos highlight the role chance plays in our existence – how our lives can turn on the tiniest of moments and the smallest of decisions, many of which are subjective. A handful of snow; a chance encounter in a café; a decision to cross a street at a certain point – all these things and more play a significant role in the lives of the central character.

Ultimately though, the novel’s overarching theme is, perhaps, the continuation of humankind – even when an individual dies, life goes on.

A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days. (pg. 15)

Before I finish, a few thoughts on Erpenbeck’s prose. While the style is spare and haunting throughout, it does vary somewhat from one section to another. Personally, I found Books I, II and V more engaging than the middle sections despite the highly compelling subject matter at the heart of the novel. Book III alternates between a first-person narrative (the documented account of the central character’s life) and passages written in the third person. While different fonts are used to differentiate between each section, the frequent switches between these two forms (together with the inclusion of snatches of conversation from a possible interrogation session) didn’t quite work for me. That’s just my personal opinion, though, and others may well disagree. Nevertheless The End of Days is a very powerful work, one I’m glad to have read.


This novel won the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and as such, it has been widely reviewed. Posts that have caught my eye include those by Grant (of 1streading), Joe (of Rough Ghosts), TJ (of My Book Strings) and Gert Loveday. I read this book for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month, which is running throughout November.

The End of Days is published by Portobello Books. Source: personal copy. Book 14/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Vienna Tales – Arthur Schnitzler, Adalbert Stifter, and more (tr. Deborah Holmes)

I’ve long wanted to visit Vienna – a European city break is just my type of holiday. I’m sure I’ll get there one day, but in meantime, what better way to experience the city than through its literature.

Vienna Tales is a collection of stories featuring Vienna. This diverse anthology includes pieces by older, established writers such as Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), Joseph Roth (1894-1939) and Adalbert Stifter (1805-68), along with works by more contemporary authors, many of whom were new to me. As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to try to cover each story in turn. My aim instead is to give a flavour of the themes and a little of what I thought of the anthology as a whole.


The stories in Vienna Tales are arranged geographically rather than chronologically, so we roam around the capital from west to east and back again. Several of the pieces are set in the margins of Vienna, reflecting the centre from a distance, but each one seems to capture a different facet of the city.

The collection opens with The Four-poster Bed, a poignant story about the demise of a love affair. In this early work by Arthur Schnitzler, a melancholy summer evening reflects the dying embers of one man’s love for a ‘sweet, darling girl’:

The last embers of sunset died down. Cool shadows crept up the houses, slowly, until they disappeared on the roofs. All that remained, way out on the last buildings, was a reddish, aching glow. (pg 24)

Many of the stories are packed with imagery, pictures of life in Vienna in the 19th and 20th centuries. In one of my favourite pieces from the collection, The Prater by Adalbert Stifter, we follow the narrator on an afternoon walk through this extensive park, an area that combines parkland, meadows, a fairground, beer stalls, coffee houses and more remote woodlands. It’s a feast day in May, and the Prater is bustling with activity:

Carriages drive through the midst of this crowd like ships in pack-ice, mostly slowly, often held up and forced to stand still for many minutes at a time, but then, when gaps present themselves, flying past each other like gleaming phantoms through the stolid, meandering mass. Figures on horseback can be seen rearing up out of the sea of pedestrians here and there, hopping over and through the line of carriages; (pgs. 164-165)

Joseph Roth’s short sketches, Day Out and Merry-go-round, also fall into this category.

Another of my favourites is The Feuilletonists by Ferdinand Kürnberger (1821-79), a delightfully amusing piece in which the narrator describes the characteristics of each type of feuilletonist (writers of feuilletons) to be found in the city. (Originating in France and Germany, popular in the mid-19th century, a feuilleton was the part of a newspaper or journal devoted to fiction, cultural criticism, light literature and gossip.) In Kürnberger’s sketch, we are introduced to the house feuilletonist, a writer who draws on his domestic surroundings for inspiration. Then we have the street feuilletonist, aka ‘the flaneur’ in high German, or ‘loafer’ in low German:

Exemplars of this species can often be found in front of the window displays of the larger fancy goods and fashion emporia. They also loiter in doorways to let the architecture of the magnificent new buildings opposite “work” on them; unfortunately, prestigious edifices freshly built in Vienna cannot be enjoyed from any other point of view. (pg 108)

By contrast, the tavern feuilletonist is to be found in the coffee houses of Vienna. ‘You will never find it there with a newspaper, but always with cards or a billiards cue in its hand. Loathing for periodical publications of all kinds is a distinguishing characteristic of this kind of journalist.’  There are one or two others as well, but I’ll let you discover them for yourselves should you decide to read this book. (Incidentally, a Viennese coffeehouse, Konditorei Demel, also features in Anton Kuh’s Lenin and Demel, a short piece on deposed aristocrats trying to getting to grips with the new culture following WW1.)

Several of the pieces in this anthology touch on the mood or atmosphere of the city. In Vienna by Heinrich Laube (1806-84), a man is entering the capital from the south by horse-drawn carriage. As he travels towards his inn in the dawn light, the visitor reflects on his impressions of Vienna.

Although I hadn’t even arrived at my inn, I could already tell how I would fare there. The city’s aspect is not one of overwhelming beauty, but picturesque, charming mellow. The warmer skies, the lilting speech, the plump, succulent bodies of the Viennese, their customs and habits, everything is locked in so blissful an embrace that the impulse is to open one’s own arms wide. And in Vienna, no one opens them in vain. It is a supremely humane and accommodating place. (pg. 97) 

By contrast, we see a different perspective on the city in Dimitré Dinev’s excellent story, Spas Sleeps. This contemporary piece features Spas, a Bulgarian refugee who fled to Vienna at the end of the 20th century in search of a new beginning. At the start of the story, Spas is sleeping on the street, but the vast majority of this tale focuses on the years leading up to this point. Reflecting on the time of his arrival in Vienna in the 1990s, Spas was full of hope and ambition, full of belief in the future. He longed to find work as it represented everything: a means of survival, peace of mind and the only way of staying in the city.

Work was a spectre. It hid itself from them and tormented everyone. Only those who found it found peace of mind. Six months should be long enough, the law decreed. After that it persecuted anyone who still haunted the place without work: an exorcist who thought six months was long enough to prove who is a person and who is a ghost. The ideal world wished to remain so. (pgs. 133-134)

We follow Spas and his friend, fellow Bulgarian student, Ilija, as they search for any kind of work, be it temporary manual jobs or something more stable. The two young men share everything, pooling their resources along with the opportunities to work and study. As the years pass, the laws get tighter and tighter making it increasingly hard for them to survive. There are many compromises and sacrifices along the way. This is a very poignant, thought-provoking story, one that remains all too relevant in Europe today. I think it will stay with me for a long time.

There are stories by other contemporary writers too. These include: Envy by Eva Menasse (b. 1970) – a subtle story that touches on love, loss and the tensions in a family; and Six-nine-six-six-nine-nine by Doron Rabinovici (b. 1961) – an eerie story of a composer who, when he rents a garret in the Viennese suburbs, hears a mysterious voice on the phone line.

Vienna Tales is a really interesting collection, all the more so for the sheer variety of pieces included. I would recommend it to any lover of literature with an interest in the city. The anthology also contains an excellent introduction by the curator, short biographies of each writer and a myriad of suggestions for further reading on Vienna (both fiction and non-fiction).

I’ll finish with a favourite quote from Out for a Walk by Schnitzler, in which four men debate their differing perspectives on the city. For one man Vienna is a melancholy place, for another it has a strong sense of nostalgia, for the third man it is merry and carefree while the fourth feels it has let him down. As the story opens, the sun is setting, and the men are walking to the periphery of the city:

Grimy children played noisily in the streets; and on the dull green meadows that began here and faded into gentle hill country further out, there were common folk who yearned for fresher air without knowing it: little boys and girls rolling on the ground or running to and fro, soldiers smoking cheap cigars with idiotically cheerful off-duty faces, streetwalkers in twos and threes laughing loudly as they strode over the fields, and the occasional solitary wanderer who had ventured out to savour the atmosphere of this peculiar no-man’s land where the city gradually comes to an end, its raw, drawn-out, fearful panting ceasing in a weary, thankful sigh. (pgs. 259-260)

Emma and Marina Sofia have also reviewed this collection, which I read for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month.


Vienna Tales is published in the UK by Oxford University Press. Source:  review copy kindly provided by the publishers.

The Inspector Barlach Mysteries by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (tr. Joel Agee)

Last November, off the back of this excellent review by Grant at 1streading, I bought a copy of The Inspector Barlach Mysteries by the Swiss author and playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt. My University of Chicago Press edition contains two novellas: The Judge and his Hangman (1950) and its sequel, Suspicion (1951), both of which feature Inspector Barlach of the Bern police. It proved to be a great choice for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month, an event which is running throughout November. These stories offer so much more than the intrigue of traditional mysteries – they raise complex moral and philosophical questions to which there are no easy answers.


Hangman opens with a death. One of Barlach’s subordinates, the bright and promising Lieutenant Schmied, is found shot dead in his car near the woods in the Jura countryside. Naturally, Barlach takes up the case even though he is in the twilight of his career. (Through the course of the novella we learn that Barlach is suffering from stomach cancer – surgery will prolong his life by one year but only if his doctor can operate fairly swiftly.) The killer and motive for Schmied’s death seem unclear, but nevertheless, Barlach has a hunch. He is an old-school detective, one who relies on human nature and intuition as opposed to the modern scientific criminology techniques favoured by his superior, Dr Lutz. Here’s Barlach as he discusses the case with his assistant, the methodical and eager officer Tschanz:

“You see,” Barlach answered slowly, deliberating each word as carefully as Tschanz did, “my suspicion is not a scientific criminological suspicion. I have no solid reasons to justify it. You have seen how little I know. All I have is an idea as to who the murderer might be; but the person I have in mind has yet to deliver the proof of his guilt.” (pg. 14)

As the pair commence their investigations, the trail seems to point to the shady but influential Herr Gastmann, an operator with links to local industrialists and foreign diplomats. When Barlach meets Gastmann, it becomes clear that the two men have quite a history. Some forty years ago, they spent a night drinking together in Turkey, during which they debated the psychology of human nature. In particular, the discussion centred on our behaviour and its impact on the ability to detect and solve crimes:

Your thesis was that human imperfection—the fact that we can never predict with certainty how others will act, and that furthermore we have no way of calculating the ways chance interferes in our plans—guarantees that most crimes will perforce be detected. To commit a crime, you said, is an act of stupidity, because you can’t operate with people as if they were chessmen. Against this I contended, more for the sake of argument than out of conviction, that it’s precisely this incalculable, chaotic element in human relations that makes it possible to commit crimes that cannot be detected, and that for this reason the majority of crimes are not only not punished, but are simply not known, because, in effect, they are perfectly hidden. (pgs. 50-51)

As a consequence, the pair ended up making a bet: Gastmann declared that he would commit a crime in Barlach’s presence without the young police specialist being able to prove that he did it. Three days later, Gastmann carried out his promise – Barlach had him arrested but was unable to prove his opponent’s guilt. And so the crimes continued with Gastmann remaining one step ahead of his pursuer on each occasion, the violations becoming bolder and more daring over time.

This is a very clever mystery, strong on mood and atmosphere with scenes of palpable tension, particularly in the closing stages. Without wishing to reveal too much about the plot, the novella’s denouement will prompt the reader to reflect on the moral issues at play. When it comes to crime and punishment, can the end ever justify the means?

Suspicion opens with Barlach recovering in hospital following his operation for stomach cancer. When he shows his surgeon, Dr Samuel Hungertobel, a photograph from Life magazine, the man turns pale. The picture shows a certain Dr Nehle operating on a prisoner without anaesthesia at the Stutthof concentration camp during WW2. Barlach picks up on his doctor’s reaction, and when he questions him, Hungertobel admits that he thought he had recognised the face of an old friend from his student days, a certain Dr Emmenberger. In spite of the resemblance between the two men, Hungertobel realises he must have been mistaken – Emmenberger was in Chile during the war. Barlach, however, is deeply suspicious:

You’re right Samuel, suspicion is a terrible thing, it comes from the devil. There’s nothing like suspicion to bring out the worst in people. I know that very well, and I’ve often cursed my profession for it. People should stay away from suspicion. But now we’ve got it, and you gave it to me. (pg. 102)

Despite his retirement from the Bern police force, Barlach is itching for one more adventure. As he recovers in hospital, he begins to investigate Nehle and Emmenberger, relying on the help of a variety of contacts in the process. When Barlach discovers a report stating that Nehle took his own life in Hamburg in 1945, Hungertobel is convinced this puts an end to any doubts. Barlach, on the other hand, keeps digging. There remains the possibility that Emmenberger and Nehle exchanged identities at some point. If this were true, the concentration camp doctor might still be alive, posing as Emmenberger and running an exclusive treatment facility near Zürich. Consequently, Barlach persuades Hungertobel to have him transferred to Emmenberger’s clinic where he hopes to uncover the truth.

Suspicion is a much darker, more unnerving story than its predecessor, especially in the second half of the novella as Barlach places his own life in mortal danger. As a consequence, the scenes in the clinic are truly chilling. The interplay between the former Inspector and Emmenberger begins as a battle of wits and becomes increasingly terrifying with each development. As Emmenberger says to Barlach:

“…We are both scientists with opposing aims, chess players sitting in front of one board. You have made your move, now it’s my turn. But there’s one peculiar thing about our game: One of us will lose or else we both will. You have already lost your game. Now I’m curious to find out whether I will have to lose mine as well.” (pg. 192)

Once again, this story touches on a range of existential issues, in particular, the nature of hope, faith and justice. There is a clear parallel between the cancer from which Barlach is suffering and his desire to fight evil, a force with the power to destroy humanity if it remains unchecked.

Dürrenmatt has been compared to Simenon, and I can see why. These are excellent, thought-provoking stories, beautifully written, too. I’ll finish with a short passage on the Jura countryside, which I hope will give you a feel for the author’s style. It’s clear-cut and wonderfully atmospheric — perfect for a cold, dark winter’s night.

They left the vineyards behind and were soon in the forest. The fir trees advanced toward them, endless columns in the light. The street was narrow and in need of repair. Every once in a while a branch slapped against the windows. To their right, the cliffs dropped off precipitously. Tschanz drove so slowly that they could hear the sound of rushing water far below. (pg 19)


MarinaSofia has reviewed the first novella for Crime Fiction Lover. Her review of Suspicion is here.

The Inspector Barlach Mysteries are published by The University of Chicago Press. Source: personal copy. Book 15/20, #TBR20 round 2.