Foreign crime has never had it so good. Whether it be the popular television series that have proliferated on our screens this decade, or novels in translation, some of which have topped the bestseller lists, we appear to have developed an appetite for foreign crime fiction that shows no sign of being sated.
More generally, crime fiction is evolving to the extent that it can no longer be contained within the narrow confines of genre-writing. Well aware of the widespread appeal of crime, many canny writers are adopting the genre as a framework within which to explore social, cultural and political issues. The result is sophisticated, nuanced writing with psychological depth and literary polish.
Enter Oliver Bottini and his series of six Black Forest Investigations, the first of which, Zen and the Art of Murder, is published in January by MacLehose Press. Bottini’s debut novel was both a commercial and critical success, selling more than 125,000 copies and winning the 2005 Deutscher Krimi Preis (German Crime Fiction Award). The author acknowledges a considerable debt to the late Henning Mankell, without whom the later success of other Scandinavian writers such as Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø may well have never materialised.
At the heart of the Black Forest Investigations is the detective Louise Bonì. Although the novels employ a third-person narrative, it soon becomes apparent that we are seeing the world chiefly through Louise’s eyes and spending a fair amount of time inside her head. The cards are heavily stacked against Louise, who seems to be in a permanent state of conflict. She is battling not only the criminal elements in and around Freiburg, but also the macho culture of the police force, nebulous conspiracies and cover-ups in other government agencies further up the hierarchy, and not least her own demons, especially her struggle with alcohol.
Louise Bonì joins a growing band of strong, idiosyncratic female detectives both on the page and the screen. Fans of the BBC’s compelling police drama, Happy Valley, will find similarities between Louise and that series’ feisty protagonist, Catherine Cawood. What is more, in both Happy Valley and the Black Forest Investigations, the focus is as much on the everyday lives of the superbly drawn characters that inhabit these milieus as it is on the crime action.
Another point in common between Happy Valley and the Louise Bonì series is the stark contrast between an idyllic rural hinterland and the terrible things that happen there. Provincial crime fiction is very popular in Germany and there is even a publishing house which specialises in this genre. The potential for such books to slip into parochialism is of course high, but Oliver Bottini never risks straying down this route. The setting may be painted with an attention to detail that would suggest the hand of a local boy at work, but the author himself grew up in Munich and has lived for almost ten years in Berlin. The issues that thread through the Black Forest Investigations, which include neo-Nazism, people trafficking, organised crime and corruption, are big national and international topics.
Zen and the Art of Murder opens with a Buddhist monk wandering inexplicably through the snowy landscape of the Black Forest. Is he lost? Is he running away from something? Where is he heading and where has he come from? The villagers of Liebau are certainly uneasy at the sight of this apparition from the Orient sitting on the steps of their church, and are relieved when the monk moves on. Louise Bonì, in tandem with a couple of local officers, is tasked with discovering what is happening, even though no crime seems to have been committed. But there must be more to this monk than first meets the eye. Thus begins the series of Black Forest Investigations, poised to captivate an English-speaking readership as it has done a German-speaking one.
Zen and the Art of Murder: A Black Forest Investigation I by Oliver Bottini, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch, published in hardback on 11 January at £16.99.
Louise Boni, maverick chief inspector with the Black Forest crime squad, is struggling with her demons. Divorced at forty-two, she is haunted by the shadows of the past. Dreading yet another a dreary winter weekend alone, she receives a call from the departmental chief which signals the strangest assignment of her career – to trail a Japanese monk wandering through the snowy wasteland to the east of Freiburg, dressed only in sandals and a cowl. She sets off reluctantly, and by the time she catches up with him, she discovers that he is injured, and fearfully fleeing some unknown evil. When her own team comes under fire, the investigation takes on a terrifying dimension, uncovering a hideous ring of child traffickers. The repercussions of their crimes will change the course of her own life.
Oliver Bottini was born in 1965. Four of his novels, including Zen and the Art of Murder and A Summer of Murder of the Black Forest Investigations, have been awarded the Deutscher Krimipreis, Germany’s most prestigious award for crime writing. In addition his novels have been awarded the Stuttgarter Krimipreis and the Berliner Krimipreis. He lives in Berlin. www.bottini.de.
Jamie Bulloch is the translator of Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back, Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, which won him the Schlegel-Tieck Prize, Kingdom of Twilight by Steven Uhly, and novels by F.C. Delius, Jörg Fauser, Martin Suter, Katharina Hagena and Daniel Glattauer.