(Reviewed by Tony Ross MAR 8 , 2008)
In the vast preponderance of crime stories, the detective must examine means and motive (the how and why) in order to identify the culprit (the who).
This English-language debut from German writer Hammesfahr flips the traditional arrangement, by making the who and the how absolutely clear from the start, and making the why completely unknown. There is no dispute that Cora Bender attacked a man at the park with a paring knife and killed him in plain sight of her own husband, son, and plenty of witnesses. What no one, including Commissioner Grovian, can figure out is why. And to my surprise, Hammesfahr manages to make his quest to understand the "why" into a gripping tale.
Even as Cora confesses and offers explanation, Grovian senses that her story isn't quite right. And for 300 pages, he prods, pokes, and literally digs into her past to try and figure out what triggered her seemingly senseless murder. Cora is a psychological mess, and as she throws out lies, half-truths, and whole truths in sometimes coherent, sometimes manic, monologues and interviews, Grovian is constantly sifting away. Cora's childhood was a very strange one, raised by an intensely Catholic mother, sexually frustrated father, and both religious and sexual themes pervade the story. Her youth was also overshadowed by her invalid younger sister, whose illness drained most of the family's energy, money, and love. Grovian must peel away at this complex family history to learn what triggered Cora, and the climactic revelation pays it all off beautifully.
I don't tend to go for crime stories that are this intensely psychological, but this is a corker. It's perhaps a touch to long, and in places a touch too slow, but these are relatively minor quibbles considering the mesmerizing tale. The comparisons to Patricia Highsmith are valid, and hopefully some of Hammesfahr's twenty or so other books are equally good and will become available in English.
- Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Wikipedia page for Petra Hammesfahr
- Bitter Lemon Press on The Sinner
- Eurocrime review of The Sinner
- International Noir Fiction review of The Sinner
- MostlyFiction.com review of The Lie
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About the Author:
Petra Hammesfahr, born in 1951, has not had an easy life: she left school at thirteen and became pregnant by an alcoholic husband at seventeen. It is a life that has provided inspiration for her bittersweet family crime novels where the sweetness of childhood and the horror of adults meet. Hammesfahr has written over twenty crime and suspense novels and writes scripts for television and film. She has won numerous literary prizes, including the Crime Prize of Wiesbaden and the Rhineland Literary Prize.
Hammesfahr lives in Cologne, Germany.