German Lit Month: crime and humour


You know I like crime fiction and you know I like German literature, so of course I couldn’t resist sneaking in a few crime novels for German Literature Month. This time I look at two novels which purport to bring crime and comedy together, even though English speakers like to pretend that the Germans lack a sense of humour.

KayankayaJakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord (One Man, One Murder)

The archetypical hard-boiled yet compassionate German detective with a Turkish name (and looks) is back in this third outing by the wonderful Arjouni. Arjouni really hits his stride in this one: Kayankaya has become much more thoughtful, mature and empathetic in this book, whilst also retaining his rebellious streak, sheer bloody-mindedness and vicious sense of humour.

Weidenbusch is a bright round ball of a middle-aged man who ‘probably irons his underwear and thinks that pink glasses and colourful watches would give him a personality’. He hires Kayankaya to find the love of his life, Sri Dao, a young Thai woman he has been trying to rescue from a strip joint. She was promised false papers which would enable her to settle in Germany, but has now disappeared, and her boyfriend thinks she might have been kidnapped. Kayankaya starts combing first the bars and brothels of Frankfurt, then the asylum seekers’ detention centres, the deportation unit at the airport and other government offices. Along the way, he encounters squalor, desperation, corruption, party politics and entrepreneurial criminals who do not shy away from making money out of the most vulnerable in society.

Unsavoury characters abound in this (oddly timely) look at immigrants and refugees falling off the radar in the underbelly of Frankfurt. Kayankaya meets each racist aside with his trademark sarcasm and turning of tables. Arjouni is not afraid of handling big themes with clear-eyed, unsentimental storytelling, wit, but above all understanding.

They’d fled. They’d gone halfway round the world with just two cases. They’d written applications, been turned down, renewed their applications, been turned down again, were housed in stables or ten to a room. They’d hidden and lived without papers and now they wanted to get some false ones. They’d managed to find 3000 Marks out of nowhere, had tried everything, just to be able to say: tomorrow I can sleep as long as I like… But they don’t have a chance. Refused means refused. The refugee “in whose culture torture is a common method for questioning”. The refugee ‘who would not have to fear any repercussions upon his return to his home country, if only he had not been politically active – and he was fully aware of the risks he was taking’. And of course the ‘economic migrant’, regarded as a vagrant when he stands in front of our German supermarkets, as if hunger and poverty for three quarters of the world’s population is a basic human right… Sooner or later, they’ll find them all and put them on the nearest plane. [my translation]

MorgueJutta Profijt: Morgue Drawer Four (transl. Erik Macki)

I have a faint suspicion that Profijt may have modelled herself on Arjouni in this mad caper of a crime novel (shortlisted for the Glauser Prize). I rather liked the set-up, although I struggle to see how it could win any literary prizes.

Sascha (who prefers to be called Pascha) is a car thief who believes he is too cool for school, but is in fact just a small-time, foul-mouthed criminal. After being pushed off a bridge, he refuses to accept the verdict of accidental death and haunts gentle, hesitant pathologist, Martin Gänsewein, a stickler for detail, whose life is turned upside-down through his ability to communicate with the dead spirit.

The humour was inconsistent, fine at times and a bit forced at others, and I can see how the story might wear thin for a series. A perfectly fun read for a first attempt and a bit different from the usual crime fare, but nothing like Arjouni’s deep humanism and precise style here. Entertainment rather than enlightenment is the purpose here.


Friday Fun: Staircase to Heaven

It was the staircase which sold the house in England to me 10+ years ago. The stairs were dark, dingy, very 70s, but they turned the corner in a large hallway (not at all common in UK homes) and had a gallery running all the way around the first floor. I’ve repainted the wood and got rid of the wallpaper, but I have great plans for that staircase…

Meanwhile, here are some staircases which might inspire you.

Stylish and practical - book-lined staircase, by Agnes Macadam on
Stylish and practical – book-lined staircase, by Agnes Macadam on
For lovers of the grandiose. Abbaye de Fontevraud, picture by Nicolas Matheus, from Remodelista.
For lovers of the grandiose spiral. Abbaye de Fontevraud, picture by Nicolas Matheus, from Remodelista.
For lovers of the modest spiral (and wheeee!), from
For lovers of the modest spiral (and wheeee!), from
Oresman Library, from Domaine Home.
Oresman Library, from Domaine Home.
For chateau lovers, from Affinity Prestige.
For chateau lovers, from Affinity Prestige.
For traditionalists, from
For traditionalists, from
For modernists, from
For modernists, from
For lovers of the uncomfortable, from
For lovers of the uncomfortable, from
Perfect for posing. From
Perfect for posing. From

Moving Beyond the Clichés

What is Love?                   

smells of linden-trees in bloom and girls in flower

the colour of the sky when you wear tinted sunglasses

taste of sweet-n-sour sauce at two in the morning

feels like repeated blows to your chest, strong-armed into breathless

sounds like the background buzz taking over the ear of the matter

What is Anger?                       

Sets in when love meets the acrid smell of hotel-room encounters

you bring back the scorched branding of cattle irons on my skin

the colour of migraine-inducing flashes of scarlet and indigo

sounds like hostile parrots trapped in a cage that’s far too small

feels like dim flickers of lightning about to flash from every pore

tastes of gravel mixed with ashes

What is Defeat?

semolina-pudding grey of school lunches

tastes like sand grains in your picnic

smells like clothes you’ve rolled into bed with for a day, a night, a day, a night

feels like pushing kettle-bells through mud

even the lampposts have been trained to catcall and taunt you

I’ll be away this evening, so am linking a bit early to Open Link Night at dVerse Poets Pub, where we are celebrating Diwali and you can enjoy many other poets’ offerings.

Angery by Kristin Elmquist, from
Angery by Kristin Elmquist, from

I Was Jack Mortimer


JackMortimerA strange little number this time round, somewhat reminiscent of ‘The Third Man’, by an Austrian author I had never heard of before. Pushkin Vertigo, the new imprint from Pushkin Press, seems to specialise in little-known, unusual mystery books. Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer (transl. by Ignat Avsey) is no exception. Published in 1933, it’s a book balancing between faded past and uncertain future, aristocratic and working-class Vienna.

There are clear parallels with German Expressionist films – Fritz Lang’s ‘M’ comes to mind – and early American gangster films, with ambiguous and unreliable main protagonists, cold femmes fatales and lack of clarity about who – if anyone – is on the side of the good and the just. Dashiel Hammett’s sparse, hard-boiled style must have been an influence on Lernet-Holenia. It sounds like his work is derivative, but it has its very own quirky originality and goes in unexpected directions.

Ferdinand Sponer is a thirty-year old taxi driver with upwardly mobile aspirations. Having read the cover blurb, I was expecting a dead body in his cab from the word go, rather than a longish introduction in which he moons around after one of his passengers, a beautiful and haughty young lady of aristocratic descent. His behaviour might best be described as stalking, despite the fact that he has a long-suffering girlfriend, Marie, who takes good care of him (one of the typical Viennese ‘süßes Mädl’, a good-natured working-class girl more sexually available than her bourgeois counterpart, who frequently crops up in art and literature as an object to be used and discarded). So by no means a likeable person. Nor does author give us a great deal of insight into the character’s psyche: we can only deduce Ferdinand’s personality and thoughts from his actions, which are described in minute detail, with almost forensic precision and coldness. Here’s how he reacts, for instance, when he discovers the dead body (when it finally does appear):

He edged backwards out of the cab, straightened up and struck his head hard against the top of the door frame. His cap fell forward over his face. He instinctively pushed it back with his forearm instead of with his blood-stained gloved hand. He turned around… He took a couple of slow steps, then three or four very quick ones. He pulled off his blood-stained gloves and threw them into the car. Closing his eyes momentarily, he slammed the rear door shut, then got in his seat, turned off the interior light and, closing his own door with his left hand, swung the car to the right and headed towards the policeman operating the traffic signals at the centre of the crossroads.

Scene from The Third Man, from
Scene from The Third Man, from

But, needless to say, he does not quite succeed in alerting the police. Instead, he gets sucked ever deeper into a dangerous game of concealing the body and impersonating the dead man. This isn’t a conventional detective story, though, for it’s not really about finding a killer or even about discovering how the man in the cab got shot without the driver noticing. It’s more of a mad race through the streets of Vienna by night, including a scene of confusion and paranoia in the hotel room, plus a longish, very cinematographic chase scene with Marie as the heroine. So a thriller with a mad caper thrown in for good measure, and a personal journey of awakening for the main protagonist. Not quite a noirish ending either.

I’m not quite sure what to think of it. I rather admire the ‘behaviourist’ style, although it does get more interiorised as Sponer gets more panicky. I would have liked perhaps something more obviously noir and downbeat, but of course I enjoyed the descriptions of driving around a grey, Novemberish Vienna. I also liked the sly digs at a city in which everyone is slightly dishonest and snobbish. All in all, this is an atmospheric recreation of Vienna between the two World Wars.


Julia Franck: West (transl. Anthea Bell)


I received this book just in time for German Literature Month, from the fair hands (or post office) of Lizzy herself. Big thanks to Lizzy for a book which left a deep and unsettling impression.

WestI noticed many reviews on Goodreads stating that it was too depressing and bleak, an accusation also levied against Herta Müller, who also handles similar themes. Perhaps the problem is that there is no character readers can fully identify with: each one is flawed, ambiguous, makes us slightly uneasy. We get to hear in alternating chapters from scientist Nelly Senff, who escapes to the West with her two children; Krystyna, a Polish cellist who has given up her music, sold her instrument and moved her whole family to Germany to seek medical treatment for her brother; John Bird, the American CIA agent who hopes to further his career by unearthing Stasi spies; and Hans Pischke, an actor who was a political prisoner back in his native East Germany. Although each is narrated in first person, we never feel we completely understand the motivation of each protagonist. But then we get to see each character through the others’ eyes, which gives an interesting multi-faceted perspective, but also creates a distancing effect.

The daily humiliations and harassment the immigrants have to face, both inside the refugee camp and outside it, are described with blistering realism. The cramped conditions, the parcelling out of unwanted food, babies crying, couples quarrelling, suspicions and accusations of favouritism. In addition to all that, Nelly’s children are horribly bullied at school. There is a painful scene in the hospital with the doctors refusing to believe the son’s account of how he got beaten up, culminating with an even more cringeworthy scene when one of the bullies’ mother brings him to the hospital to apologise to Nelly’s son.

Finally, you also have an additional layer of humiliation from the gender perspective, as Nelly is an attractive young woman, while Krystyna is a fat middle-aged woman, and the men all around them feel entitled to make rude remarks about both. There are many other such memorable scenes, and on the whole the three refugees handle them all with a passivity and resignation which may infuriate some readers, but has probably allowed them to endure so much. Just occasionally, however, they break down and burst out, as Nelly does in the West German interrogation room. Or else they employ the ‘weapons of the weak’, as Hans does by refusing to thank the woman who hands out the weekly rations at the camp because:

I didn’t feel like heightening her sense of self-importance; there was far too much of it in her voice anyway.

This book reminded me of other books about immigration which I have read recently: Americanah and Die undankbare Fremde, which also discuss the heavy burden of expectations on the shoulders of ‘good’ immigrants. The host country expects immigrants to be grateful, fit in, accept everything unquestioningly, remain uncritical of their hosts, smile and be happy.

West German officials certainly don’t come out well from these exchanges. When Hans refuses to cooperate by informing about women who might be engaging in prostitution in the camp, his employment advisor lambasts him:

‘I just don’t get it… here you all are, you arrive without anything, without winter shoes, without a washing machine, without even clothes to put in a washing machine, without a roof over your heads, without a penny in your pockets, let alone a mark, you hold up your hands, you take what you want and turn down what you don’t, you make claims. That’s what you do.’

Author photo from Hochschule Rhein Main
Author photo from Hochschule Rhein Main

Well-meant efforts of help come across as patronising and misguided. The final Christmas party scene at the refugee centre is a perfect example, full of sardonic humour. And that’s what makes this book difficult to read, perhaps, and yet so topical during the current refugee crisis. We in the Western world mean well, yet for scarred and victimised individuals, we can come across as arrogant and ignorant. They then react in unexpected ways, which do not conform to our norms of  acceptable and understandable behaviour. So the misunderstanding, mutual dislike and suspicion grows between us.

How to resolve this? Short of making everyone experience a little of the fear, uncertainty and infantilisation which immigrants often encounter? Well, it will have to be books like this, both fictional and real-life accounts, which will hopefully keep our vein of compassion flowing and our sense of justice forever insatiate.

Side-note: Julia Franck’s family moved to West Germany when she was eight years old, and spent some time in a refugee camp, so this novel is based on personal experiences. I understand some of her other books are far more bleak, but this one had a fierce, scathing humour and sarcasm which made it bearable.

In the spirit of transparency: The TBR Book Tag

I came across this on the Cleopatra Loves Books blog (which is a real treat of a book blog, so do go and pay it a visit if you are not familiar with it already). Cleo was very brave to admit her bookish foibles, and a few of her readers have followed suit. So, in the interests of transparency, it seems only fair to attempt my own form of accounting. I’m sure it will help rein in my book-buying or requesting (yeah, right!). I define TBR as the books I do actually own but haven’t read, rather than my wishlist.


I have’t to date, so this is my opportunity to be a star pupil now. Before, I would scroll down on my e-reader and sigh. Stare at the double or triple pile of books up on the shelves and learn to avoid them when they fall.


Let the painful counting begin. 172 currently on my tablet, but another 10 or so in pdf or trickier formats on my laptop (I get sent a lot by author friends). Plus another 15 or so on my husband’s account on Kindle, which I conveniently forget about, books I downloaded back in the days when I had no e-reader of my own and didn’t really like those ‘dang things’. So a total of 200 or so in electronic format.

My collection of physical books is comparatively slender: only 78. Of course, I don’t include any library books in that pile.


As a reviewer for Crime Fiction Lover, I often have deadlines linked to the launch of a book or a broader feature such as ‘Classics in September’ or ‘New Talent November’, so those will take priority. I occasionally take part in reading challenges such as ‘German Literature Month’ or ‘Global Reading Challenge’, so that influences my choices.

Most of the time, however, I just go with my gut instinct, although I do find that one book will lead to another in a mischievous, conspiratorial way. For instance, I will find myself embarking upon a series of reads about bad mothers or male midlife crises, whether French or elsewhere. After such a bout of misery, I will then need to find something funnier, lighter to rinse out the bitter taste from my mouth.


This would be amongst the ‘forgotten pile of books’ on the Kindle. I believe it’s a tie between Jutta Profijt’s debut novel ‘Morgue Drawer Four’ (shortlisted for the Glauser Prize in Germany back in 2010 and translated by Erik J. Macki) and Stanislaw Lem’s ‘Solaris’ (I loved the Tarkovsky film, less so the more recent adaptation with George Clooney, but the author apparently didn’t think much of either of them).


poisoningJust this morning, I made the mistake of going to Netgalley (to post a review) and lingered there… so I ended up downloading Lauren Holmes’ Barbara the Slut and Other People (who can resist a title like that, hope it will give me loads of insights into the younger generation) and Jean Teulé’s The Poisoning Angel, translated by Melanie Florence for Gallic Books. This latter is based on a true story about a 19th century female serial killer.


I live in hope of reading all of them… but I did discard one or two recently where I thought: ‘Was I drunk when I clicked the “buy” button?’ It’s just too easy to order things on Amazon – one more reason to avoid it.


besidemyselfI’ve been an admirer of Ann Morgan’s thoughtful reading and reviewing back in the days when she completed her ‘Year of Reading the World‘ challenge. I got to chat with her via Twitter and email, and even got to meet her when she gave a TEDx talk in Geneva. So I was very excited when she told me that she has a book coming out on the 14th of January, 2016. ‘Beside Myself’ is a twisted psychological tale of identical twins who swap places for a day – but then one of them refuses to swap back. Sounds like just my cup of tea!


bookthiefOK, I’ll stop feeling ashamed and admit that I’ve not read ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak. I’ve read about it, I’ve seen the film, I’m sure it’s the kind of subject I would be interested in… but somehow I never got around to it. I bought a second-hand copy of it this summer at a friend’s house clearance sale, so I finally have a chance.


I’m a big Pascal Garnier fan but haven’t read ‘Moon in a Dead Eye’ yet, which is the favourite Garnier for many of my fellow book bloggers. So, if it’s as good as ‘How’s the Pain?’ (which has been my personal favourite to date), I will be delighted!


No particular book but there are certain authors whom I really look forward to reading or rereading: Eva Dolan, Clarice Lispector, Virginia Woolf, Neil Gaiman, Simenon, Stefan Zweig.

You may not think so, given that in some cases I have more than a couple of books by them on my TBR pile but haven’t dived into them yet. Life just got in the way… and it’s sometimes easier to keep those ‘sure bets’ in the background for when you need some reading/writing inspiration.


Viennese tram stop.
Viennese bus stop.

785 but that’s a wishlist, so it doesn’t count. I keep adding to it as soon as I read a review of a promising book or someone mentions a new to me author or a topic I’m interested in. (Basically, anything to do with Vienna, Brazil, immigration and expats gets an automatic look-in.)

However, the most amazing fact is that before 2009 or so I did not have any TBR pile or wishlists. I would mainly borrow books from the library and only buy a few books which I read almost immediately. In 2010, however, I started writing again myself, and my reading has increased exponentially (not that I ever was a lazy reader). Plus, my husband’s misguided attempt to cure me of buying physical books by getting me an e-reader has resulted in double the number of books!

Of Ear Worms and Pop Philosophy: My Favourite Song Lyrics

I was listening to classic songs on the radio this weekend while cooking. I was singing and jiving along, when two things occurred to me:

  1. There is a part of the brain uniquely specialised in song lyrics you acquired as a child and teenager. You will remember them and be word-perfect even decades afterwards.
  2. No other songs since have quite captured that uncertainty and angst which threatened to overwhelm you back then… and which have periodically reared up their ugly heads. You vaguely realised back then that life is unfair and hard, but you have to keep trudging on. Now you know for sure. And, just occasionally, there are some moments which make it all worthwhile.

So here are my favourite songs from those teenage years. Little wonder I turned to noir novels and dark, emotionally-wrenching poetry later in life… [I hope it’s OK to use these excerpts, by the way, I know that copyright for song lyrics are very, very tricky in books and the like.]

Album cover, from
Legendary album cover, from

Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here

We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found?
The same old fears.
Wish you were here.

Pink Floyd: Shine On You Crazy Diamond

Well you wore out your welcome with random precision, rode on the steel breeze.
Come on you raver, you seer of visions, come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine!

GloryDaysSpringsteenBruce Springsteen: Glory Days

… I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it
but I probably will
Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture
a little of the glory of, well time slips away
and leaves you with nothing mister but
boring stories of glory days



Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes

talkingheadsTalking Heads: Once in a Lifetime

And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right?…Am I wrong?

And how could I leave out my favourite Mr. Bowie?

David Bowie: Changes

And every time I thought I’d got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet
So I turned myself to face me
But I’ve never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test…

Finally, just in case you thought it was getting all too masculine and self-important, here’s one of the wittiest songs in existence (and so true of me and my passion for shoes):


Kirsty MacColl: In These Shoes?

Then I met an Englishman
“Oh” he said
“Won’t you walk up and down my spine,
It makes me feel strangely alive.”

I said “In these shoes?
I doubt you’d survive.”

If you know these songs, I’d encourage you to remind yourselves how gorgeous they all are. And if you don’t know them, you should set to discovering them at once.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend!