European crime fiction in the crosshairs

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Crime Thrillers and Water

Jürgen Benvenuti: Big Deal. Thriller. Haymon Verlag 2007, 346 S.
François Darnaudet: Les ports ont tous la même eau ((All ports share the same water). Mare nostrum Polar 2007. 271 S.
Wolfgang Schorlau: Fremde Wasser. Denglers dritter Fall (Foreign Waters. Dengler's Third Case). Kiepenheuer & Witsch 2006. 271 S.
Raul Zelik: Der bewaffnete Freund (The Armed Friend. A Novel). Novel. Blumenbar Verlag 2007. 286 S.

Elfriede Müller


In this age of globalisation water continues to connect places, just as it always did, but by the same token it can also represent boundaries, and become the object of confrontations. This precious substance is destined to be a topic for crime thrillers, even if Darnaudet maintains that, at the end of the day, all ports share the same water. His novel plays out between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, between Bordeaux and Perpignan , between Andernos and Port-Vendres, between Collioure and Arcachon. The story, relating the concept that Les ports ont tous la même eau, follows two young men, Marsal and Francis, and takes in two seas, but in the end these two stories become one. A committed exponent of the French ‘roman noir', Darnaudet takes a present-day murder, but lends to it a historical and political dimension. The victim, Charly, is the illegitimate son of Karl, a German soldier, and Martine, daughter of a French oyster merchant, who had met in 1943, when France was occupied by Nazi Germany. Their love affair had no future, of course. Karl was injured on the eastern front, handed over to the Red Army and became a distinguished chemist in the GDR. The attempt to solve the murder of Martine and Karl's son turns into an investigation stretching from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, which ends up on the trail of children born in France to German soldiers. Although 200,000 children were born as a result of relationships between women from Nazi-occupied countries and German soldiers, the subject has scarcely been discussed publicly, until now: yet another reason to make it the topic of a crime novel. Darnaudet contrasts the humiliating treatment of women who either allegedly or unquestionably had relationships with Germans, with the generosity granted to collaborators following liberation, who frequently carved out successful careers in postwar France : “On the whole she recognised none of the FFI or FTPs [resistance fighters] from the village, only those who had kowtowed. She could still remember Boggio singing ‘Maréchal, nous voilà!' in 1940 or 1941.“ (p. 176)

Darnaudet relates the stories of Marsal and Francis who, after personal and political trials in extraordinary circumstances, demonstrate the strength of the individual, solve Charly's murder, commit murder themselves and, in their behaviour and actions, lend consistency to Darnaudet's somewhat disparate plot. The more successful Darnaudet's novel finally is, the less believable Raul Zelik's first person narrator, who sends his armed friend, who is being pursued by the police, on an expedition along the Catalonian Mediterranean coast, not far from Darnaudet's scenario. Der bewaffnete Freund (The Armed Friend), Zubieta, the real hero of the book, is, like Marsal and Francis, a chap from another age, representing a movement from the past, the ETA: “Without our violence, there would be only their violence. And that means: even less justice”. (p. 172) Zelik's portrayal, as critical as it is temperate, explains how this once socialist, but now long since only nationalist, movement considers the overthrow of the Spanish state to be its legitimate aim. Zelik depicts the history of ETA following Franco's death, the continuation of the Francoist police and their torture methods, and the murders by the right-wing Grupos Antiterrostas de Liberación in French towns of the Southwest. Spain 's European transition, its political amnesia and its policy on terrorism are depicted incisively, and it becomes clear how evil resides in Europe too. Zubieta's story carries the plot and makes the German friend, who risks his scientific career but not his sedateness, seem even more colourless.

Fremde Wasser (Foreign Waters), by Wolfgang Schorlau, demonstrates that success is possible too. This novel comes recommended as a ‘book to film' to anyone who has seen the film Der große Ausverkauf (The Great Sellout) about the privatisation of public ownership and its consequences. Schorlau forgoes classical crime riddles, just as the French ‘roman noir' has been doing ever since the seventies. Even if he incorporates his serial characters, the former Federal cop Dengler and his lover Olga, as a measure of security, he delivers tough Agitprop action that verges on the black side. From the starting-point of the murder of a female backbencher from the CDU party, the privatisation of (life-essential) water is depicted in such a way that no one can continue to maintain he knew nothing about it. The illusion, too, to which Zelik's first-person narrator initially succumbs, namely that political self-realisation might be achieved by hard work, is dismantled by Schorlau using the example of the former left-wing radical Crommschröder, now head of VED, an international water company. The firm privatises waterworks domestically and in Jersey : “Because the large operations have the financial clout to force the smaller firms into bankruptcy over a certain time period, by lowering prices. When this has been achieved, and they have swallowed up the small companies, they raise the prices, just as they wish, more or less as we are experiencing right now with the electricity and gas prices.”(p. 229). Woven into the fiction is the true story of the people of Cochabamba in Bolivia , who managed to set back the privatisation of water by means of mass demonstrations, barricades, strikes and militancy, and who in Schorlau's story bring about the unmasking of Crommschröder's character. Anyone who wants to understand what happens when society is robbed of its property, and perhaps even wants to fight it, should read Fremde Wasser.

Judgement as to whether Jürgen Benvenuti's “Thriller” Big Deal only comes across so blandly because he does not deal or engage with the theme of water must be left to his readers. That Benvenuti belongs to a different generation than Darnaudet and Schorlau becomes apparent primarily from the restricted worlds his characters inhabit. The tough informer Natascha signs up with the police because of all-too familiar problems, whilst David Schrot is striving to become a writer. For both of them, self-fulfilment lies in work. Unfortunately neither possesses an armed friend, one who might bring them to the right path and to the water.

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