Book Title: BLACK ICE
Author: Hans Werner Kettenbach
Publisher: Bitter Lemon Press
No of Pages: 224
Erica, an attractive local heiress, is married to Wallman, a man with expensive tastes. When she falls to her death near their lakeside villa, the police conclude it was a tragic accident. Scholten, a long time employee of Erica's, isn't so sure. He knows a thing or two about the true state of her marriage and suspects an almost perfect crime.
BLACK ICE is the first of German author Hans Werner Kettenbach's novels to be translated into English, and it's taken me from it's original publication date of 2005 to read it. Which is good in one way as there appears to have been more books since then. Which are now on my immediate buy list and I know that is probably going to sound very strange, as this isn't a particularly straightforward book.
Scholten, the long-time employee of Erica Wallman, isn't a pleasant man. He's probably one of the most unpleasant characters I've encountered in crime fiction for quite a while. And the book is told from his perspective so a lot of time is spent in the head of an unpleasant person. Whilst his redeeming feature seems to be that he is the only person who doesn't believe that Erica's death was accidental and he is prepared to do what it takes to prove that, his overall demeanour makes you wonder if anybody would ever care what he thought. But other people's opinions don't really matter to Scholten and he's absolutely obsessed with solving how Erica's husband killed his wife. It's quite a puzzle too as it appears that she has simply slipped into the lake near her holiday villa - her husband nowhere nearby, the victim totally on her own at the time. Yet Scholten painstakingly builds up a picture in his mind, and finds the pieces that he believes show that there was nothing accidental about the fall at all.
The tone that the book uses is very much set by Scholten's own voice. Grumpy, self-opinionated, self-obsessed, unhappily married to a disapproving wife, dour and surly, the book proceeds in a low-key, dour styling as a result. Having said that, there are some funny moments, as is there fragility and profound touches of melancholy. These are people for whom life, as they made it, hasn't lived up to expectations. But there's a single-minded purposefulness to everything that Scholten does that's claustrophobic, so personal to Scholten that the reader is left in a very uncomfortable position. There's no clear "hero" to barrack for. Just this unpleasant man who, aside from how much you dislike him, may, over and above everything else, just may have a point.
And then this man, this "hero", the one person that believes totally in justice for Erica Wallman gets distracted from the path of exposing the truth and ties himself up in a knot of catastrophic proportions. And the reader is left. Unable to decide whether a seriously unpleasant man has got exactly what he deserved. Or a woman's fate has been unjustly served because her hero turns out to be no hero at all. Either way - it's an extremely clever ending, full of meaning and immensely satisfying. But a warning, it's not neatly tied up in a bow and delivered up on a plate. Thankfully.