Simone Buchholz is the author of eight crime novels published in her native Germany. Beton Rouge (Orenda Books, January 2019) is Buchholz’s second novel to be translated into English, with the first being Blue Night (2018). Set in Hamburg, a place close to the author’s heart, the novels are noir tales that reflect on society’s modern malaise. Buchholz is a writer injecting her own energy and flair into the noir genre and her principal character, Chastity Riley, is a human wrecking ball. So, when Simone Buchholz appeared as the Author of the Day at the London Book Fair as part of the promotion for Beton Rouge, I jumped at the chance to catch up with her.
As the voice recorder clicks, on we are discussing the concept of “noir”. What is it? I venture some long-winded definition, but Buchholz cuts to the chase and sums it up nicely:
“It’s about investigating life, investigating souls.”
Simone is 47 and she has lived in Hamburg for the past twenty years. Born in Hanau, she grew up in Laufach-Hain, near Frankfurt. I mention this because Chastity Riley, the prosecutor and beating heart of her novels, has a similar background. She also lives in Hamburg and she was brought up in the Frankfurt area. Her father was a US serviceman. Buchholz studied philosophy and literature in Würzburg before dropping out to earn a living. She became a journalist and worked in magazines for fifteen years, mainly “women’s magazines”, reporting on everything from sports to economics. After fifteen years, Buchholz came to the conclusion that the German magazine style was too static, stuck in a rut, too “boring”. There was no room for her to grow as a writer. She turned to crime writing, “to create another sound”. She found a new voice and her character, Chastity Riley, was born. Buchholz has been writing crime novels since 2006. She was first published in Germany in 2008 and now makes her living from it.
Her novels have been critically acclaimed and they are widely admired by other writers. William Ryan, author of A House of Ghosts, said this of Chastity Riley:
“If Philip Marlowe and Bernie Gunther got together in a Hamburg speakeasy and had a literary love child, then that might just explain Chastity Riley – Simone Buchholz’s tough, acerbic and utterly engaging central character.”
I ask about the value of winning prizes and whether it has made a difference for Buchholz.
“Well, no. The thing is, in Germany, I don’t know how it is in the UK, but in Germany we have huge bestsellers who have to be very mainstream and, for me, sometimes it’s a bit boring in the way of writing – not challenging. To reach millions you can’t be too challenging. The awards go to the critics’ darlings. I’m lucky that in Germany I’m selling quite well, there’s an awareness about my work and it’s appreciated. If I was to be a bestselling author I would have to write far more mainstream stuff.”
My inner fan-boy comes out here: Don’t do that!
“No, I don’t want to, I even can’t, maybe I would if I could. My husband is always telling me, ‘Write this big chic-lit shit baby so that we can buy a house on the Canary Islands’. [She shakes her head.] No, I can’t, I’m sorry.”
I venture that a lot of mainstream crime writing falls into this bestseller trap, a bit anodyne, murder mysteries that are mundane, even dull.
“Yeah, if you get bored pretty quickly in life and in reading you have to pick the special things.”
So, does Buchholz get treated differently as a female author, particularly one who writes noir, existential crime fiction?
“It has two sides. The good side is that I am living in a good time to be a female writer because a few years ago even the German market realised, ‘Oh, wow! There are female writers and we have to push them because if not we are just old boring men’. I was pushed by the critics and being given awards and I was pushed by my publishers, which is good. I think ten years ago it would have been more problematic. Or not so easy. On the other hand, there is still this kind of framing about how my work is written and talked about [as a woman]. I can tell you a quick story about the time I got my last award, the German Crime Fiction Prize. A really important award. There are three places, I got first place and I love my colleagues, I adore their work [the other recipients were Matthias Wittekindt and Max Annas]. So, the first journalist to break the news [that I won] wrote of my book that it was light entertainment and of the books by the boys that they were existential literature and radical political books. So just feel the difference!”
The Buchholz novels that I’ve read are as radical and political as anything else being written in Germany or, indeed, across Europe. This is typical of the kind of the casual sexism Buchholz encounters all the time:
“This is quite normal when we come to a certain stage of how we write about or talk about books by women and literature by men.”
It must be very frustrating.
“It is. I’ve experienced it for ten years but at this point I just said, ‘Sorry, I don’t want this anymore’. And I tweeted something like, ‘Strategy meeting. This is not OK!’. After that there was a huge press wave, which was good for me and also for all my female colleagues, who were like, ‘thank you so much’. So, I think that being a female writer in Germany at this moment is about grabbing the microphone at the right time and opening your mouth and saying what you have to say. We still have to.”
I ask about noir and how it’s still rare to see strong female characters. There are still too many women portrayed as sidekicks and femme fatales.
“Yeah, and it’s not only due to the writers, I think it’s due to the publishing companies, TV stations. What do they want? What does the market want? Do they want to fix the circumstances as they are, fix society as it is, or do we want to change something? And if we want to change, you’re always on the edge [pushing the boundaries]. You have to have balls to do that, I think, as a publisher, as a writer, as a TV station, because it’s risky.”
I broaden things out a little by asking if we are too complacent as a society, sort of drowning in our ordinariness, perhaps too comfortable with the status quo?
“Yeah! They fall asleep, they fall asleep in society. If we look at this moment in time in our European society, except for Britain where everything is just a mess at present and nobody is secure [that’s said with a resigned sadness and a sympathetic smile not schadenfreude]. But the rest is like, ‘we are well off, we’re healthy, we’re getting old, everything is just beautiful’, and the people just want to stay like that, not realising that the world is burning. And it’s quite comfy to read this mainstream stuff because it tells you that your life is OK. There’s this young woman being tortured, murdered, it’s normal. Then comes the cop, and he’s damaged and everything, but he’s a man and that is why he is able to fix it and leave the world like it is now. I think this is comfy for people, to read that stuff. But books don’t have to be comfortable. I don’t want to read comfortable things.”
At this point, Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books, Buchholz’s UK publisher, stops by to say hello and to sort out some housekeeping issues. When Karen leaves, Buchholz is straight back to it:
“Yeah, if I finished a book I don’t want to go to bed and sleep well.”
This reminds me of something Leila Slimani, author of Lullaby and Adéle, said in the Guardian Review recently, “I never meant to shock people, I just meant to disturb them, make them feel something. I think that literature is here to disturb us.”
So, I continue with the theme of noir and question whether it should be unsettling. Personally, I dislike neat resolution because nothing is ever resolved that way in real life.
“We can’t fix it. There are these gaps [traps/mistakes/unplanned events] everywhere in life. Just by walking through your world you leave gaps everywhere. People and society have so many gaps to fall into. I think what I want to do with my books is to make people aware of the gaps, to get them to look at them and realise something, maybe try to not open so many gaps of their own making. If you see the gaps in fiction, maybe you will not make so many gaps in your own life.”
“Take violence, for example. I think that writing about violence has to always be writing against violence. That’s the point.”
“So, if you show the violence in the structure of the crime novel or the noir, there is violence in my books; psychological and real violence, do it properly. We all write about it. If you do it properly, you have to write against violence. That’s what we are supposed to do.”
Gabriel Tallent, in a guardian interview said this of Turtle Alveston in My Absolute Darling, “I wanted to write her so that the damage we do to women would appear to you, as it appeared to me, real, urgent and intolerable.” So I ask about violence, the two types of violence in Beton Rouge, the personal attacks but also pervasive cultural violence.
“Yes, structural violence. Violence is only possible if you are living in a violent society. And every society created by a man, mankind, so far is violent. Mankind is violent. I believe we can improve that, I believe we can do better. The more we become civilised, the less violent society will be. It sounds a bit big, but for me it is like the emotional centre of what I’m writing about, not even in my mind [consciously], I have it here [Buchholz points to her heart/gut]. Always keep in mind what you want to tell, not even which story but which essential ‘thing’ do you want to transport [convey].”
The word I used was “message”, but it’s lame when compared to Buchholz’s idea of the emotional centre.
“The emotional centre is smuggled in; in every sentence, in every chapter, in every scene, in the whole book, you have to. For me, this is serious writing in every genre. You can do it in every genre.”
And so we are back to crime writing versus literature. I ask how Buchholz’s writing is seen by the critics. Is the distinction between literature and crime writing seen in Germany as unbridgeable? The point of crime writing is to throw open a window on society.
“Crime writing is so fucking actual, it’s really on point. It’s getting better [for crime writing in Germany], a lot of awards have been established in the last, let me say ten years, although it began maybe twenty years ago. A lot of awards to fix that problem, to show the people this is good, important literature. And it’s not the million selling thing, but please read this. The crime genre is not just about crime and even the critics are seeing it too. You can put everything in it: poetry, love, the essential human stories, lust, death, violence, greed, grief. And if you’re writing poetics, you have everything in it, you can have some humour. So many possibilities, it’s like a universal storytelling. You can do anything with it. But in Germany there is also this difference [elitism/snobbery]. Maybe it’s different in France, maybe a bit better, not so strict.”
It’s getting better in Britain and crime fiction outsells all other fiction now, but the snobbery still holds true to some extent here. So, now we are onto one of my favourite things; how European crime writing has developed noir, particularly the French neo-polar and Mediterranean-noir. I recognise a lot of the best qualities there, strong social commentary and the cosmopolitan cultural setting, in Buchholz’s novels Blue Night and Beton Rouge. I go on a bit here, but Buchholz puts it nicely.
“Yeah, and I do harbour fiction, I think maybe.” [I hope Buchholz has coined that phrase. If she was irritated by my rambling on about Mediterranean noir, it doesn’t show. Of course, Mediterranean noir and what Buchholz does is a kind of harbour fiction, harbour noir.]
Harbour noir reflects the fact that Hamburg is a major port. It has a history of migration and trading, from the Hanseatic League, dating back several centuries. The city is multi-cultural and Buchholz’s novels reflect that; the vibrancy, mood and the colour. I ask about moving from Frankfurt and falling in love with Hamburg.
“Yes, I’d been there [Hamburg] a lot of times when I was a kid because my grandparents still lived there and during summer break my parents just sent me off to grandpa and grandma. My grandpa was an opera singer in Hamburg. He was tall, a huge man with a very deep voice, and walking around Hamburg with him, with all the water and the seagulls and this deep voice in my ears, was something very special for me and very grounding. I felt as safe as you can imagine. He always wore this strange sand coloured coat.” [The coat makes it into Blue Night.]
“And when I decided to go to Hamburg in 1996 I was just so heartbroken. I lost a love and I had to go far away. It was like, Hamburg or Berlin? Far away in Germany. [In Hamburg] I had this, I felt safe there, I came for four weeks to explore whether it was still that way for me. It took exactly two or three days, I think, and then I began looking for an apartment I really felt like the city saved me. Because I accidentally stepped into lovely people, this city is really open.”
“It is a harbour city, people from so many different countries and areas in Germany, for me it was easy to access. And it saved my broken heart. Definitely. We went straight into bars and we’re drinking – which is always good for heartbreak.”
“Then I remember the day after two or three months when I was walking, near the harbour, through St. Pauli, the red light district, the streets broken, everything was like a bit off. I was walking there and I felt like I had roots under my feet. Incredible. Incredible, I will never forget that, Wow! Wow! I’m really grounded here.”
I wonder if this about St. Pauli, the district, or Hamburg in general? This briefly gets us into football, [it is relevant to the novels and to the character of the place], but I don’t want to mention the weekend’s result. Buchholz jumps straight in.
“Yes, I’m a football fan. We lost 4-0 on Sunday but normally do much better.” [I offer a word of sympathy.]
I steer the conversation away from an involved conversation about football, I know we could go there, since Buchholz is a season ticket holder at St. Pauli; “football has big stories in life.” But the team reflects the culture of the city and the St. Pauli district in particular. It’s radical and so is Buchholz. The fans of the club have a punk spirit and a belief in left-wing politics (equality, anti-Nazism).
“Yeah, it’s a St. Pauli code; we have chaos and structure, we have humour and grief, it’s a kind of dialectic place, it’s the football club and the place, the people. [Everybody knows] There are always two side. Hamburg is like London. You have quarters you love, some you think ‘I never step in there because they are far too rich and snobby, or too posh, or too right wing’. The city is concentrated [like a magnifying glass], so condensed. The port is the heart, the city is nothing without the port, and without it the city would not exist. I think [harbour noir] would work in Marseilles, Genoa, Glasgow. It would be really good in Glasgow.”
So, is Hamburg a character?
“Um, that’s not first time I’ve heard that. It’s not consciously done. I think Hamburg and the connection to the weather is an additional character or something that gives my characters additional layers, you know? By showing the city I can show the inner life of somebody. It’s a mutating twin. Every character can grab Hamburg and I can show how he or she feels, what his/her life is all about.”
And, of course, that goes for Chastity too. Her politics are left wing, her lifestyle chaotic.
“Yeah, she’s a socialist, absolutely.”
So, I want to know about Buchholz’s relationship to her character. How much of Chastity is Simone? The answer is a little surprising.
“Umm, when I started her she was very strange to me. She was a riddle. I don’t know why I even chose her. She was really hard to get to know for me. [Things changed] With Blue Night, this was like a second start, a second series, a kind of reset. [It is the first novel published in English but five earlier novels were previously published in Germany.] In the first five books, I just try to get closer to her. It was the fourth/fifth when I nearly succeeded. And since book six, Blue Night, I really got her and since then we are developing a friendship I would say. We are realising that we are not so different, we are looking in the same gaps. We see the same gaps and we look inside. But I’m a bit more cheerful.”
That’s very true. So how much of Chastity is wish fulfilment? I mean, she can do what Simone can’t, get away with stuff?
“Yes, it’s always like that, but that’s what I have in all my characters a bit. She is doing the heavy smoking and the heavy drinking I can’t do because I’m real. I do it sometimes, but not every day, every night – No, I’m sorry. And it’s getting worse in the next few books. There is some wish fulfilment, yeah, yeah maybe. But I really like her. I like her more with every book. I understand her more.”
I make a confession here. I can’t help liking Chastity Riley. It’s odd, but even when she has crazy opinions or behaves badly, I’m on her side.
“You go with her, follow her… that’s what’s happening to me too. I’ve been with her for ten years, so she’s doing crap things I didn’t expect her to do. I have to follow her too. It’s strange. It’s me, but it’s another part of me, a strange thing in writing. I like her, how her body works, she’s strong, I think she can fight.”
Chastity has a lot of good qualities, but she is also an outsider (her American soldier father and she isn’t part of the boys’ club). She also claims to be detached from the past.
“A lot of things in my novel are about heritage, where you’re from, where do your family come from, for example, Stepanovic [Chastity’s police partner in Beton Rouge] is from the Frankfurt area [it’s a running joke in the novel about south German attitudes]. But also there is a material heritage, strength [DNA]. Nobody knows why they are who they are. You can ask so many questions of your parents, but there are so many special things just for you. Then you have to walk around with that. But she [Chastity] has a good side – you can depend on her, you can rely on her, she’s absolutely reliable. I think she is like one of your friends, when you come and say ‘I murdered somebody’, she says ‘OK, I’ll hide you’ or whatever.”
Chastity is an outsider, which gives her a different perspective on life, but she has a tight group of friends. Her loyalty to them is very strong. The novels pose moral questions, reflecting on actions that sometimes conflict with the law but have a sense of natural justice about them. Beton Rouge is a story of revenge, but the perpetrator is someone who was victimised and tortured in earlier life. You can’t help but be sympathetic. Buchholz’s novels are not so much about specific crimes as the effects of those crimes on people and society. So, how does Chastity see these men?
“Yes, they are arseholes, big arseholes [the torturers]. She [Chastity] almost, almost is on the side of the one tortured by them [the suspect in her case], she sees what big arseholes they are. It’s a special part of her job as a state prosecutor. She’s got no weapon. There are people around her with weapons because it’s the red light district, cops, but she can’t wear a weapon. She is not allowed. But she has the power to decide whether they are investigating or not? Are they going in or not? It’s her decision, she has to figure it out. She always has a very special kind of moral code, not by law, absolutely not, but it’s straight, her inner compass, but not the same as the law is saying. This is interesting to think about and to write for me.”
Buchholz’s novels are very political too. They tackle universal issues, social and economic inequality, rampant capitalism, patriarchy, etc. There’s a corporate villain in Beton Rouge, a media empire, the industry is big in the city. Is that why she chose it?
“No, it’s so easy to go after the banks, these financial bad boys. But the media are bad too. The special publishing house in Hamburg exists but not under the name in the book. They sell themselves as good boys, giving good jobs, well paid, good journalism. Stern is published there for example. But no longer. Ten years ago they threw people out, they cut the wages, now they are all freelancers. If there’s a legal thing [libel, defamation etc.], it’s not for the publishing company to solve but the individual journalist. They say ‘do it on your own’. Awful! Really awful. They pretend to be the good ones. That’s not true, sorry, no.”
Is she trying to shake people up with the politics?
“Yes, yes, I want to show who the bad guys are, definitely. And it’s not always who you expect them to be. Just look at them closer please, ‘what is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank’, or something like that – Brecht I think. I want to be political and I want to show all of my readers even if they don’t get it consciously. I love to smuggle it in, I love to smuggle it in, I love that.”
Does she hold back? Could she be more aggressive, more in readers’ faces?
“No, I just do it my way. I think if you get what I write it’s kind of radical and it is aggressive, it doesn’t scream ‘jump you fuckers!’ I don’t shout out to show how mean some people are. I’m really quiet and that’s the way I am, not a shouter.”
What about research?
“I do a lot of research, I love to talk to the police. I have my pals. One for organised crimes and one for drug crime and one who’s from the special forces Stepanovic [in Beton Rouge] is from, and murder investigation. I love to talk to them and drink beer with them. We don’t always do it in the correct way – phone the press office. It developed in this way, I just text ‘beer?’ If I start with a new story I try to spend three days in headquarters asking questions, knocking around, being a ghost. And I love it.”
Does she work hard on that hard-boiled feel, the tight taut prose?
“Yes, it depends on the hard-boiled. I do a lot of research. I’m like a sponge but I write maybe 10%, the rest is smuggled in [between the lines]. There’s a lot in my head, but I know if I want people to listen to me, I can’t start by ‘let me explain’, I have to be very precise. And it’s the hard-boiled influence definitely. I read a lot of Chandler, but also Hemingway. Hemingway, I love the later Hemingway and Dorothy Parker. I learned a lot by reading Dorothy Parker when I was young. I love these stories, the shortness, the condensed language. It’s a bit north German too.”
The novel seems to progress on two plains, Chastity Riley’s story and the murder mystery. Her story unfolds and then a bang, a punch, the murder mystery jumps forward in a few passages of prose. It’s a beautiful style that makes the novel fizz. Is it conscious?
“Maybe that’s my kind of writing because it makes it easy to progress the story and to… If you spend so much energy on the language you have to make the story progress by itself. This kind of writing helps me with her [Chastity] while I’m [typing] one letter after another. It’s not going really fast, it’s taking a lot of time.”
I confuse the next question with the English anomaly “public” when we mean private school. Buchholz doesn’t seem to like public schools. Are they such a nightmare in Germany?
“It’s the boarding schools. For me, as a leftist, I am for public education. I think every child, they should all have to go together to one school. I want that, and they do quite good in Germany. But the boarding schools normally are private. This school I was writing about is a mixture [boarders and day students]. An old friend went there and he told me how lonely he felt when he was eleven, standing outside the school, with no parents or nothing. Structural violence developed in these schools. Only boys, no women, no girls.”
“It’s a really toxic structure and that’s what I am interested in, closed societies and what is happening there with the people.”
“I love to write about organised crime. My next book, actually already out in Germany, is about clan families [Mexicoring]. I love to look behind the walls of this closed structure and see what happens to people. What are they doing? A close look into society and that’s the thing with boarding schools. It was more about what happened if you put 300 boys together led by men. What happens there – nothing good! Never good! I believe in a diverse society of every kind. If you’re in London on the tube you see all these beautiful young people, modern, intelligent, smart, parents from all over, that’s how mankind and society, how we develop and get more civilised. Create a group culture. It’s not about heritage. People get better if we mix, a lot better. We have to be diverse.”
Is Buchholz currently operating on two timescales? Mexicoring (Germany) and Beton Rouge (UK)?
“There are four of me. [She laughs.] Sometimes it feels like that. At the end of April I have to deliver the next novel in Germany. Since September I’m travelling with Mexicoring and since October I’m writing the new one I have to deliver in April and it’s not even half way done. I’ve been travelling with Beton Rouge now for two weeks [this is mid-March 2019], that will go on until September and then the next one will be out. With the writing thing I’m on three tracks. I have a book in Germany and in the UK, (also Italy and France, not so much travelling). Two books to travel, and a third writing, and then a ten year-old son and then I have my drinking habits. Imagine how cool it would be if I were five people. Fast-track living, but I love that.”
We’ve overrun the interview and Buchholz has been very generous with her time. I switch off the voice recorder. We chat as we pack up and then I remember an online interview Buchholz did for Zeit Online with Sigrid Neudecker. Asked about the difference between the reception for her novels and her male counterparts’ novels she replied, “Oh man, it must be so fantastic to have a penis!” Naturally, that became the headline. Buchholz tells me that some of her friends jokingly referred to her as “The Penis Lady”.
Buchholz’s novels, Blue Night and Beton Rouge, have been translated into English by Rachel Ward. Mexicoring, to be published next year, deals with a criminal gang in Bremen, a love story between Nouri and Aliza, a spate of car arsons in Hamburg, and Chastity behaving more badly than ever – I can’t wait.
If there were any justice in the world, these books would all be million sellers.
Beton Rouge by Simone Buchholz
Orenda Books 9781912374595 pbk Feb 2019