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black ice

23 may 2007

Hans Werner Kettenbach's Black Ice is a taut crime novel that takes place entirely within the ambit of a single highly off-center mind. It's an excellent example of the principle that almost any central reflector character in fiction will engage the reader's sympathies as long as the reader's attention is carefully pinned on that character alone. Jupp Scholten is a sexually incontinent, habitually lying, weak-kneed would-be murderer: and we spend most of Black Ice wishing that he would achieve every one of his highly suspect goals.

As the novel opens, Scholten's employer Erika Wallmann has just fallen down a flight of stairs at her weekend home – to her death. Accident, suicide perhaps; but Scholten suspects murder. He is sure that Erika's philandering, spivvish husband has arranged for her to fall downstairs, while Wallmann himself is off establishing an ostentatious alibi. Scholten works as a handyman at the weekend home that is the crime scene, and he soon works out how Wallmann could have been sure Erika would fall to her death without even a nudge in the right direction.

But how to prove Wallmann's guilt? Here's where the real psychological impact of the novel hits home. The pusillanimous Scholten is afraid to accuse Wallmann directly: for one thing, if he loses his long-term job with Wallmann's firm, Scholten will have to spend the rest of his days in close quarters with his exasperating wife Hilde. As he thinks more and more intently about how to catch Wallmann, Scholten begins to see his way to disposing of both boss and wife in one swoop . . .

Translator Anthea Bell does a strong job of rendering Kettenbach's 1982 Glatteis into English. Unlike H.G. Smittenaar in translating the 1980s mysteries by A.C. Baantjer, she resists the temptation to update the setting. At a key juncture, Scholten must go to Holland to establish his whereabouts, and he passes 1980s-style customs checkpoints and uses 1980s currencies.

Missing from Bell's translation, however, is any hint of an element that drew strong praise from German reviewers: the tough, funny, noirish dialogue extolled on the book's cover. Although I haven't seen the German original, I sense a deliberate effort in translation here to avoid distracting stylistic effects. Bell renders the story straight; however sparkling the dialogue may have been in the original, it would only detract from the story here to render it into some hard-boiled variety of English.

Reminiscent of Simenon's L'homme qui regardait passer les trains or Scott Phillips's Ice Harvest, Black Ice is a substantial treat for fans of the detectiveless psychological crime novel.

Kettenbach, Hans Werner. Black Ice. [Glatteis, 1982] Translated by Anthea Bell. London: Bitter Lemon, 2005.