After finishing a fairly lengthy, serious novel, I thought I’d switch to a psychological thriller. This German book was favourably reviewed in a number of places so I thought I’d give it a try. Its comparison to The Dinner by Herman Koch piqued my interest. After reading it, I would compare it more to another of Koch’s books – Summer House with Swimming Pool.
The protagonist, Henry Hayden, is a famous novelist who has been successful enough to live “a life of wealth and luxury.” His secret is that he has actually written none of his best-selling novels; they are the work of his wife Martha who feels compelled to write but wants no attention or credit. Henry has a mistress, Betty, who announces that she is pregnant. Wanting to continue to live “a free and prosperous life,” Henry decides to take an action “to preserve the status quo” but things go horribly wrong. He kills the wrong person and soon finds himself in a cat-and-mouse game with police detectives.
Henry is morally reprehensible, and he doesn’t deny his character; he speaks of his “innate wickedness” and describes himself as “a murderer, a liar, and a fraud.” Nonetheless, he is capable of “sporadic acts of goodness” and readers may find themselves hoping Henry will be able to escape the punishment he admits he deserves. Henry even indirectly comments on the reader’s dilemma: “Is it possible, Henry sometimes wondered, to love a monster? Is it permissible? It is in fact obligatory, if you believe in human goodness.”
A problem with the book is the number of secretive people. There’s Henry, of course, but there are others: Claus, Henry’s publisher, who hides his terminal cancer diagnosis; Betty who wants to keep her pregnancy a secret; and Honor, Claus’ assistant, who keeps her love for her boss a secret. And everyone seems to have emotional or psychological issues: there’s a psychopath, a synesthetic recluse who spent time in a psychiatric clinic, a fishmonger who goes into uncontrollable rages, an envious man who wants revenge on a childhood bully and stalks him for years, and a woman who schemes against another woman whom she perceives as a romantic threat. These characters are believable only if the reader, like Henry, believes “in the self-evident badness of human beings.”
There are sufficient plot twists to keep the reader interested. Henry is adept at alibis and has become an expert on forensics and the science of criminal investigation, but will he be able to foil the lead detective who is “a genius of case analysis” and has “a solved crimes rate of one hundred percent”? Unfortunately, there are a few too many narrow escapes so the reader’s credibility may be overtaxed.
One of the most enjoyable elements in the book is Henry’s observations, some astute and some merely comic: “But men are never more cowardly and their lies never more pathetic than when they’re caught with their pants down” and “popularity is all too often confused with significance” and “success was a mere shadow that shifts with the moving sun” and “A dash of truth is often enough, but it’s indispensable, like the olive in a martini.”
This is a quick, enjoyable read that doesn’t require much of the reader except to question whether to believe in human goodness.