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by Hans Werner Kettenbach
Bitter Lemon Press, February 2005
240 pages
ISBN: 1904738087

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

BLACK ICE is a deadpan little gem of a book from German writer Hans Werner Kettenbach. If you like Patricia Highsmith, you'll welcome this addition to the understated menace side of the genre.

Jupp Scholten isn't quite on a par with Ripley, but he's not the most charming of blokes either. He's in his 50s and an archetypal underachiever working as an engineering firm's dogsbody. He's short-tempered and snappy, uses prostitutes and is objectionable to his wife. Mind you, she's a pathetic whiner who lives on her shredded nerves, so maybe that's understandable!

But Scholten has a streak of loyalty and a doggedness which makes him want to find out the truth. He works for Wallman, a businessman, whose wife Erica is killed near their lakeside villa. Police claim it was an accident. Scholten, who has known Erica since her teens, knows the marriage was rocky and reckons Wallman was after her fortune.

So he ponders how he can find out what really happened -- he's a dab hand when it comes to recreating possible scenarios -- and how he can interest the police in re-opening the case.

The book is like Highsmith and UK writer Margaret Yorke in that the menace is obvious, even though the blood and guts takes place offstage. And, like Yorke, there's that feeling of something sinister going on behind that seeming small-town respectability. In fact, an air of melancholy pervades the whole book.

Don't expect to read BLACK ICE and warm to the characters. But I enjoyed the dry wit, particularly in the bar scenes where a selection of eccentric villagers are unleashed on the action. And I certainly didn't see the change of direction at the end looming on the horizon.

Kettenbach's style is pleasantly relaxed and he has an ear for sharp dialogue, although Anthea Bell's translation seems a little heavy on UK slang at times. If you like shoot 'em up action, BLACK ICE probably won't be to your taste. But if you like clever, understated storytelling, this is one for you.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, November 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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