The Dance of Death by Oliver Bottini
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
I’m late to German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, but have just made it with the third crime novel in Oliver Bottini’s ‘Black Forest Investigation’ series.
Louise Boni is a Chief Inspector with the Freiburg ‘Kripo’. She’s in her forties, single and now sober. We gather that in the previous books in the series that she wasn’t. It doesn’t help that her best friend Jenny is now where she was when drunk. She needs a distraction from the builders and when a family is threatened by a stranger, it’s just the thing for her to get her teeth into, working out who the man was.
The stranger turns up in the prologue, first watching the Niemann house, then coming up to the window, then coming right inside while Paul had fallen asleep on watch. He quotes a psalm first, then gives the ultimatum:
“Go away, is my house.”
“Is my house.”
“I don’t… understand…”
“Go away with family, is my house.” […]
“Seven days,” the man whispered. “Go away seven days.”
“In seven days, yes.”
“I come seven days.”
“Da,” the man said right beside his ear.
And he’s gone. Melted away into the darkness, leaving Paul and his family panicked, traumatised, confused. Boni takes on the case, but this man’s identity is elusive. How is he linked to the Niemanns? And, more importantly, can they find him in time before he returns to carry out his threats?
The answer is in the past – but it doesn’t begin in the recent past. We’re talking several generations previously, when many Germans had emigrated to the Balkans, forming enclaves there and having families. When war and instability comes to the area with the rise of fascism, the Germans were forced out, some to camps, some were lucky to be repatriated, others weren’t so lucky. With the break-up of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian War, those remaining Germans living outside their native country were stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Initially, the traces left by the threatening visitor don’t lead anywhere. Paul Niemann had been lulled into a state of denial by him. His marriage to Henriette was already shaky, and his two children, Philip and teenager Carolina, whom Louise really takes to, are justifiably anxious, yet, the family doesn’t move out for safety, staying put.
Paul Niemann does have a link to the man threatening him though, and Louise gets the breakthrough she needs via a local homeless man who has seen the stranger around – and seen the inscription in his cigarette case. But to track him down she has to go East to the Balkans…
This crime novel does have its moments of action, be it threatening or violent, but the overall pace is definitely slow burn. Once Louise uncovers the link to the Germans living in the Balkans, to me, it became a history lessons, told at length. While it is valuable to know about the terrible treatment of these displaced Germans, there was such a lot of rather complex historical detail that it just weighed the novel down. There was a heavy-handed parallel with Louise’s own position in that her apartment block is being redeveloped, and she is trying to stay, but is in danger of being forced out.
I did find myself wishing I’d read the previous books in the series, as some characters from Louise’s recent past are introduced without any back story. Bottini won the German Crime Fiction Award for the first two – it would have been good to get to know Louise Boni before she was sober perhaps too as she is an interesting character.
I’m sure that Jamie Bulloch’s translation can be relied upon, but due to my unfamiliarity with the characters and the weight of history I felt that the book lost the lure of the chase for me. (6.5/10)
Source: Review copy – thank you! Oliver Bottini, The Dance of Death (Maclehose 2019) hardback, 400 pages.