‘Blue Night’ is the sixth book in a popular series of German crime novels about Hamburg-based State Prosecutor Chastity Riley and the first book in the series to be translated into English. I was immersed in it and fascinated by it from the first page, partly because it wasn’t at all what the publisher’s summary had led me to expect. It described Chastity Riley as ‘Hamburg’s most hard-bitten state prosecutor’ and said she was currently out of favour for having blown the whistle on her corrupt boss and described Simone Buchholz’s writing as having ‘all the hard-boiled poetry and acerbic wit of the best noir’. So, I’d expected to meet a hard-driving lawyer, pushing her way back to prominence while monologuing Chandleresque descriptions of the Hamburg demimonde she hunts in. In other words, American noir in a much older city and with a German accent.
Chastity Riley and Simone Buchholz’s writing both turned out to be something quite different.
Most noir writing I’ve read works by having a central character who moves through but is not really part of a sleazy, occasionally dangerous demimonde, sharing their jaundiced sometimes wise-cracking, sometimes fatalistic take on on the inhabitants as if he was taking you on a behind the scenes tour of a zoo while going on a quest to find the solution to a mystery. There’s something voyeuristic about it. The central character has more in common with the ‘respectable’ people who exploit the citizens of the demimonde than he does with the people who live there.
The thing I liked most about ‘Blue Night’ was that Chastity Riley is part of the demimonde. She has built long-term friendships with a very diverse group of people: an ex-thief, an immigrant couple who run a café that is becoming a restaurant and a retired policeman with a personal vendetta against one of the leading figures in organised crime. She lives in the heart of the Kleis and is part of the community. She spends a lot of time smoking and drinking and hanging out with her friends and drinking and smoking and drinking some more.
‘Blue Night’ isn’t about solving a puzzle, nor is it about Chastity re-starting her career, although both of these things happen, it’s a total immersion in her world.
The storytelling is remarkable. it’s a non-linear character-rather-than-plot-focused narrative. It focuses not just on one character but on a mature ensemble cast with a rich shared history. Simone Buchholz uses a simple but very effective device to show how their relationships have evolved and how the experience and expectations overlap and sometimes conflict. She intersperses the main 2016 narrative with thin slices of history going back to 1982 and moving forward two or five years at a time. In each slice, we get a paragraph or two from the point of view of one of the ensemble cast. Each slice changes or deepens our understanding of the 2016 narrative.
Playing against the normal noir conventions, ‘Blue Night’ is written with a quiet gentle humour that fights against and sometimes emphasises the sadness and disappointment that characterises so much of the lives of the core cast.
All of this is wrapped around an intriguing mystery set against a grimly realistic picture of the sleazy side of Hamburg and the long reach of organised crime. Even here, the storytelling is original. As a result of her whistleblowing in a previous book, Chastity has been ‘exiled’ to an administrative sinecure that keeps her as a State Prosecutor but with ‘special duties’. One of those duties brings her to the hospital bed of a man who has been severely beaten and has had his right index finger removed. Chastity know nothing about him except that he was wearing a good suit, has an Austrian accent and refuses to give his name or answer any questions about himself.
I was fascinated by the oblique way in which Chastity interrogated the man and started to win his trust. The whole plot depends on what she finds out about him and his attackers and she approaches the problem in a way that fits with her character: she brings him beer, takes him outside to smoke, asks him non-threatening questions and works with her network of professional and personal colleagues to find out more. The resolution was both surprising and satisfying.
Two other things made ‘Blue Night’ a memorable read: how nuance the translation was and how well the narrator’s style fitted with the text. Sometimes, with translated text, I get the sense that I’m looking at the action with a pane of glass between me and it. I know what’s going on but I’m always aware that I’m not touching the original. Rachel Ward’s translation was so good that I quickly forgot that anything was being translated at all. I could hear all the people in my head and they felt real. Of course, this was helped by Gabrielle Baker’s narration and particularly by her choice of regional English accents
i’m a fan now and will be coming back for the three other books in the series that are available in English.