A fine murder mystery that deals with the past haunting the present, selective memory and the ‘justice’ of the victor. The Dance of Death is intelligent and insightful and Bottini’s writing has verve and style. This gripping story is a little bit quirky but the laughter, the absurdity of life, only camouflage the noir heart of the novel, events are shrouded in a veil of deepest black.

It’s a clever writer who can take something familiar and seemingly ordinary and twist it into something surreal and off-kilter, blackly comic but deadly serious. Like the first two Bottini novels in English, an apparently innocuous event actually prefaces something deadly. In this case, a stranger appears in a garden, unimportant you might think, only it isn’t, and it leads to a terrible incident and a race to prevent further tragedy. Revelations from the past are chilling and disturbing.

The Dance of Death is the third Black Forest investigation, following Zen and the Art of Murder and A Summer of Murder. This is a series I have become very fond of for Bottini’s slant on the world. These novels remind me of the Adamsburg novels of French crime writer Fred Vargas. They have a dark humour, a sense of farce, a beguiling easy style but are a leap into the void. A very modern noir that appears almost quaint in its passing strangeness to begin with. This novel is inventive, bizarre and surprising. Bottini manipulates tropes and highlights the peculiarities in people’s behaviour, making his characters intriguing.

Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre (the theme tune to Jonathan Creek), were it longer, would be a perfect accompaniment for reading this novel, a strange jaunty piece that is melancholic and dark. The tone of the novel strikes me the same way. The legend behind the Danse Macabre is that once a year on Halloween the dead arise and dance until dawn. This is a novel haunted by the dead, the recent dead, the long dead and the soon to be dead.

Zen and the Art of Murder introduced detective Louise Boni. She was coping/not coping with her marriage break-up and recurring nightmares (PTSD). Boni killed a French paedophile, a child murderer. The trauma had a profound effect on her, the case of the Zen Buddhist monk who just turned up in Liebau one day (beaten and starved) brought her back from the abyss but not before a terrible ordeal. Then in A Summer of Murder Boni returned to duty after four months meditation at a monastery, her first case back was a baptism of fire. A rural barn fire in which a fire fighter died. A weapons cache and traces of Semtex were discovered. Who is responsible for this arsenal? Why are they stockpiling weapons? It wasn’t long before murder complicated matters.

Now in The Dance of Death Paul Niemann hears Brahms’ A German Requiem coming from his son Philip’s room, he wonders why a fifteen year old is fascinated by this piece of music. He gets himself breakfast, it’s a normal boring weekend in Merzhausen. Then Philip appears, there is a man in the garden, it’s foggy and Paul can’t see him. He remembers they used to sing the Brahms in Munich at All Souls. Then he is there; a tramp, filthy, wet, torn anorak, Slavic looking, a strange presence. Paul asks if he can help but the man doesn’t reply. Philip is anxious, Paul comes back inside the house. The man approaches the window, stares and then disappears but not before showing the black object in hand. That night Paul wakes and the man is there again:

‘The Lord will also be refuge of the oppressed, refuge in time of trouble,’ he whispers before instructing Paul to leave this house he will be back in seven days.

Louise Boni likes her builders, they are Polish, or Upper Silesian as they see it; Christian, Andreas, Matthias. She is living in dust and disruption but she will not move from her home.

The Niemann case falls to Boni, it’s no longer a local issue because of the gun. On the way to the office Boni goes to Jenny Böhm at Oberberg church for some enlightenment on the phrase the stranger used – the 9th Psalm. Böhm says it’s very Old Testament: God protects the innocent and destroys the wicked. Boni now has an ominous feeling that the man will return.

Boni wants four officers to deal with the matter, her boss Rolf offers one. He says they should wait seven days and give the man a royal reception. Boni argues and they compromise on three. As the man had a Russian accent they start by visiting the Russian-German settlers, there is a large community at Landwasser. They see themselves as German, the general population doesn’t. Niemann dealt with them a few years ago for a short period as a council worker.

‘The foreigners were claiming to be Germans, even though they didn’t look like – Schneider made inverted commas with his fingers – “Germans”, didn’t speak like “Germans”, didn’t think like “Germans”, didn’t eat and drink like “Germans”, didn’t shop like “Germans” and didn’t raise their children like “Germans”.’

Boni visits the family, but they have no idea why they have been selected, they have only been here four years, could it be the land? The man comes back early with devastating consequences.

The plot leads us in to a world of immigrants and racism, the Yugoslavian war and World War II. The name Wapolwo crops up but it means nothing to anyone, yet, understanding the past will be key to solving the case. The trail leads to Zagreb, Bosnia, and Lódz in Poland. The more Boni discovers the darker things get, moral questions around the treatment of Germans after the war arise. There are cleverly laid red herrings to distract the reader.

Chief Inspector Louise Boni has admirable tenacity and she sees things that others miss. Her life is a little less screwed up here, although hardly in balance, and events, once again, kick her in the guts. Like the best detectives she is a loner, a bit maverick, dysfunctional with a healthy disdain for authority and conformity. But this isn’t a novel that wants to conform either, character and story are perfectly matched. The Black Forest setting and the mix of rural and urban locale is interesting and, of course, Boni travels further afield this time.

Bottini has picked up several awards for his writing in Germany and may yet do so here. The quirky spirit of the original German is beautifully rendered in Jamie Bulloch’s translation.

Paul Burke 5/4

The Dance of Death by Oliver Bottini
MacLehose Press 9780857057686 hbk Jul 2019