“Tobias Rösch looked at my colleague as if he had just bitten off a budgerigar’s head.”

Beton Rouge, the second novel in the Chastity Riley series, following Blue Night last year, is essential reading for noir fans. Buchholz is one of the finest exponents of Euro-noir out there and I’ll explain why I like her writing in general and Beton Rouge in particular so much if you give me the chance. However, if you just want to something of the flavour of the novel and why it is so good, this is what you need to know:

Beton Rouge is a fast-paced German thriller set in Hamburg and featuring Chastity Riley of the public prosecutor’s office. She has her cabal of friends with her, but whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is a moot point (adds to the fun though). This is an intriguing revengers tale that explores the nature of blame, guilt and mitigation – what drives a person to crime. Borrowing from the American hardboiled school, the writing is taut, the dialogue sassy and there is an edge of toughness and cynicism to the story. However, what Buchholz borrows she makes her own, the result is a distinctive noir and Chastity is a truly original character. As much as this is a crime story, it’s also Chastity Riley’s personal journey through life, she is the principal fascination of the novel. Chastity is a strange but enchanting character, she is one quarter insider and three quarters outsider. Chastity lives in the moment, she has an intriguing world view and spending time with her as a reader is a exhilarating experience. Her observations are sharp and even though she’s quick to judge she often hits the nail on the head. Buchholz also does a nice line in wry, black humour in her novels and there are some very funny moments in Beton Rouge set against a backdrop of greyness and pessimism. The novel opens with a hit and run, Chastity is a witness after the fact, this will have ramifications for the case she is about to handle. The police have been called to the harbour, the offices of Mohr and Wolff, a large publishing concern. Someone is torturing the company executives, leaving them naked and beaten in cages outside their offices. These are not popular men but it is hard to believe that the motive could be the redundancies and cost-cutting measures they are enforcing at the magazine empire. Something buried deep in the past is finally catching up with these men, who, coincidentally (??), all went to the same public school. Why are the victims being targeted? Chastity and her detective partner, Ivo Stepanovic, will have to travel to Bavaria to find out. Beton Rouge is a touch of class, a superb noir.

If you’re interested in why I think Simone Buchholz deserves mention in the same breath as Jean-Claude Izzo, Massimo Carlotto, Carlo Lucarelli, Alicia Giménez-Bartlett and Jean-Patrick Manchette read on:

I don’t think of noir as a creed exactly, but for me it is a passion. There’s a common misconception that noir is a sub-genre of crime writing, it’s not, it’s far more wide reaching than the genre itself. It may not even be about a crime at all, it’s all about tone and intent. It has developed since the early days of the 1930s in America, now I think it’s a very European art form. Essential to the modern European noir are cynicism, fatalism, existential inquiry, gritty realism, black humour and moral ambiguity. For me, Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes and Naked Men by Alicia Giménez-Bartlett, although not strictly crime novels, meet this criteria; of course, Buchholz does too. It is also about concision, less is more is not double speak in noir, or neo-polar, it’s essential, Buchholz has mastered this art. And while we’re on the subject, I think we have to dispense with this trend of calling all crime fiction ‘noir’, it’s not.

For me, noir has to be social commentary too, a way of seeing the world, you can agree or disagree with the message but engage with it. Beton Rouge is rooted in its setting, so much so that the setting, Hamburg, Sankt Pauli, bleeds deep into the narrative becoming a character. Hamburg is a rebel city, St. Pauli radiates a punk sensibility, from the football team and the music to the leftist politics. Naturally, noir must have an anti-hero at its heart, here Chastity Riley is more important than the story. Unusually for this kind of novel Buchholz hands us a wonderful, beautifully flawed female protagonist (no boys’ club sensibilities). Chastity is every bit as self-absorbed as her, more common, male contemporaries. Noir has to contain elements of the psychological thriller too because among other things that goes to motive and motivation, both for the criminal and for Chastity (a view inside her head). Crucially, Chastity is a loner; even though she has a group of friends (a cosmopolitan gang, her own little cabal) and colleagues and even the occasional kindred spirit. But this novel is about her, her world view, her angst, her existential journey. Buchholz has created a character who lets us explore a world we don’t come across via the living room sofa.

I have taken to Chastity Riley in a big way. Partly, it’s the same way I took to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, I admire her intelligence and perseverance and free spirit. But I find myself, inexplicably drawn to her more outrageous qualities too; her anarchist soul, her arbitrary judgements, and the fact that she does something very destructive, but so sexy, she lives for the moment (personally I feel radical if I wear a bright coloured jumper!). Buchholz loves to play with our sense of conformity and boundary busting and that is a lot of fun for the reader. Chastity has a detachment from the past, no embedded guilt and scant regard for the future. She is brutally honest: “But if you ask, you get answers.” And yet the more you know about her the less you know, she an enigma, unpredictable, exciting.

Buchholz uses the novel to comment on our post-industrial age, justified worry over the future; angst, our fears of rampant capitalism, the increasingly disposable and ephemeral nature of modern life, corporatism, homogenisation – the roots of our anxiety. These fears are universal, for example, in both novels so far one of the things Buchholz has highlighted is the shift from steady high-paid jobs to freelance low-paid work (a common economic experience in the 21st century). Beton Rouge features the publishing industry, Hamburg is a major centre for the media sector in German, so the creation of Mohr and Wolff, a fictional magazine empire, gives the story bite.

The central theme of the mystery is not the crime itself but the motivation for it. Beton Rouge raises question of guilt and responsibility:

“We’ve got a culprit. And he’s also a victim.” [Chastity]
“So that’s just the same as ever too, isn’t it?” [Faller]

So, how far can mitigating circumstances temper the judgements we make about criminals? What right do we have to judge and how does the legal framework of society impact this? I have simplified here but this is a fascinating area of debate.

Given this analysis, I think that Beton Rouge is not a brief novel, it’s a TARDIS. When you open this novel at the first page you can only wonder at the cavernous breach in time and space that you just tripped into. It instantly reaffirmed the opinion I formed last year when I read Blue Night, that this is a special series of noir novels, destined to become a classic crime series.

I like the way that Buchholz opens her contemplative novels with a visceral event:

“She’s lying, twisted, on the asphalt, her strawberry-blonde hair forming a delicate pool around her head. Her pale dress is awash with blood; the blood seems to be flying from her side staining concrete red.”

Chastity turns up shortly after the event – an accident, a hit and run that will have ramifications for her next case. Her friend Inspector Viktor Calabretta is dealing with the hit and run. Someone has dumped a cage containing a naked and bleeding man outside the offices of a major publishing empire, Mohn and Wolff, in the harbour district. The police have to break the man out of his tailored prison. Chastity discovers that the receptionist took thirty minutes to make the call to the police and rather than help some of the witnesses were spitting at the unconscious man. Chastity has a new partner, Inspector Ivo Stepanovic will be heading up the investigation. The caged man is Tobias Rösch, head of HR at Mohr and Wolff, currently reducing costs, i.e. sacking people and hiring cheaper free lance labour. The Shop Steward, Grabowski, clearly doesn’t care about Rösch, “a slimy little opportunist”, but this doesn’t look like the action of a group to Chastity, more like an angry individual with a grudge. With nearly 2,000 staff on site it’s difficult to know where to start.

Then a second victim, Leonhard Bohnsen, publicity director for the magazine division, is found in the same predicament as Rösch. Both men speak of a black shadow. It turns out the two men went to school together, so did Sebastian Schmidt, Mohr and Wolff’s chief executive. Stepanovic and Chastity head for his office but he’s already at the police station with Calabretta, suspected of the hit and run. Nasty stories start to emerge about their school days, so Chastity and Stepanovic have to head to Bavaria. What happened there you can find out for yourself but:

“Every time there’s a Night of Broken Glass Yeller [the caretaker] grumbles that he didn’t board up his parents’ shop on the Nazi Kristallnacht just to have to deal with a crappy Night of Broken Crockery here.”

Naturally the school records aren’t available, but the local village Doctor, Johannes Wollmann GP, has time to help the detectives, after all he has nothing else to do at the moment:

“THIS PRACTICE WILL REMAIN CLOSED UNTIL THE MAYOR STOPS FUCKING MY WIFE.”

Suffice to say this is not the kind of public school you want your children to attend, not even if you believe in private education. Chastity hates public schools, it’s not hard to see why here. Sharp as a switchblade and pretty bloody cool. This is noiry, noir and I love it.

Congratulations to Rachel Ward, her translation demonstrates a sympatico with the author.

Paul Burke 5/5

Beton Rouge by Simone Buchholz
Orenda Books 9781912374595 pbk Feb 2019