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by Bernhard Schlink and Walter Popp
Phoenix, August 2005
246 pages
ISBN: 0753818892

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

SELF'S PUNISHMENT is the first in a series of three German novels set in the 1990s and featuring Gerhardt Self, an unconventional PI from Mannheim.

Self is a 68-year-old widower with a taste for Aviateur cocktails, Sweet Afton cigarettes and more than a passing interest in younger women. Although trained as a lawyer, following the end of World War II during which he acted as a junior state prosecutor, he became a PI. His complicity with the Nazi regime played on his conscience and unlike many of his peers he chose never to return to his old profession.

Self's income usually derives from dubious insurance claims, as illustrated in this novel by his investigation of a ballet dancer suspected of self-mutilation. However, one day he is contacted by an old schoolfriend and former brother-in-law, Korten, who now heads the Rhineland Chemical Works (RCW), a major employer in the area. Judging from all the attention to smog alarms it is potentially a dangerous polluter too.

Korten asks Self to investigate who has been tampering with RCW's computer systems. So far the intervention has been fairly minor, and often comical, but Korten is worried that it heralds something more serious. Internal Security has already identified a large number of potential suspects and it is up to Self to narrow them down and identify the culprit.

Striking out on an entirely new track from the in-house experts, Self soon identifies a potential candidate but then events take a sinister turn, and wartime events begin to colour the picture. Enlisting occasional help from his team of old cronies and RCW contacts, Self pursues the case until its shocking conclusion.

I enjoy reading crime novels in translation because it is interesting to get a feel for different locations, landscapes and societies, and SELF'S PUNISHMENT did not disappoint. The hierarchical system at RCW and the town of Mannheim were distinctively portrayed.

The writing was excellent -- and here one must also praise the translator Rebecca Morrison -- so much so that having set the book aside for a few days I decided to re-read the first 50 pages rather than skim them as I was enjoying the reading process so much and wanted to ensure I hadn't missed a detail.

The plot was fairly slow moving in places -- Self even took time out of the case to go on holiday -- and in others it drew to a halt when he felt he could or should go no further, but it was nonetheless absorbing and the dramatic ending was unexpected.

I confess I was a little uneasy at times with Self's relationships with women, but he is as interesting character and I hope that further volumes of the series are translated as I'd like to know what happens to him, and to revisit Germany.

Reviewed by Bridget Bolton, September 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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