March 05, 2006

Motor till the bump

My review of Faye Kellerman's Straight into Darkness, which appeared in DNA today (Sunday March 5).


Reading a book, not just this one, sometimes goes like a ride in a comfortable car. You motor along, a few bumps here and there -- in this case a couple of murders -- but otherwise it's smooth going. Until you hit a pothole that nearly wrecks the car. In this case, that comes via a lynching of a man that's so shocking, so gruesome, so sudden, and over so soon -- that you fall back breathless, not really sure it even happened.

But it does happen. And in Faye Kellerman's book, set as it is in the early days of Nazi ascendancy in Germany, this incident underlines what it must have been to live in a society where, really, all bets are off. Meaning, all notions of civil behaviour, of law and order, of the triumph of justice. Even the very meaning of justice. What does any of this count for, when thugs roam the streets beating people to death and they have the support of those in power? When they are the people in power?

So if Straight into Darkness is an intricate and rewarding detective story, complete with the twist at the end, that's only what you expect. Rewarding yes, but as a detective story, it isn't particularly novel or noteworthy. Because I suspect Kellerman really wrote this book to explore the implications of trying to be normal in a society going rapidly mad.

And her protagonist, the policeman Axel Berg, is normal indeed. This is no smooth-talking James Bond. Berg cheats on his wife, is not above petty corruption, and comes off second best in confrontations with thugs and authority. But he is believable for those things. And it is through his believable and horrified eyes that we see a world turning itself convulsively inside-out.

A few things grate. Kellerman has done meticulous research to get the feel of this book right; sometimes it seems she has put in sentences merely to remind us of that. On page 22, we pass schoolboys "whipping a cup to make it spin, a game known as Kreisel." Nowhere afterwards does Kreisel figure, so you get the feeling Kellerman is telling you, look at the kind of details I found out about life in Nazi-riddled Munich! Also, throughout the book "Kommunist" is spelled that way, presumably the German way. Why? Few other words get the German treatment, except for the occasional italicised German phrase. Why then this "K"-word?

The book ends on a note of mild redemption and forgiveness. That's the surprise: there's no real bitterness where you might have expected it. Instead, there's an acceptance that this is what had to happen, all those years ago. The person it affected the most, and profoundly, understands that. Out of the sickness and perversity of Nazi Germany, there's this little strand: call it hope, call it clarity, whatever.

Straight into Darkness is no classic. But on this ride, I liked this little strand.

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