Zen and the Art of Murder - Oliver Bottini
Zen and the Art of Murder - Oliver Bottini ***
They certainly seem to do things differently in the police force for the Black Forest region of Germany, but then the case faced by Freiburg detective inspector Louise Boni is quite unusual in how it develops and how it is investigated.
In fact, the Freiburg police are on the case even before it becomes an incident, showing quite a bit of interest in a Buddhist monk who has mysteriously appeared near Liebau and is roaming silently across the snowy landscape of the Black Forest region, bearing some signs of injury. For some reason the local authorities are quite concerned about this - not about the monk's injuries or the fact that he is completely unprepared for the elements, but where he has come from and what he is doing out there at all.
The monk doesn't seem to speak any of the common European languages of the region, so Louise Boni is called in to help out. Again, it's hard to understand the rationale of the police force, since Boni is off-duty and not physically or mentally in good shape. Following an incident where she shot a suspect two years ago, she's been drinking a lot, having nightmares and hallucinations. But still, her boss thinks she might be able to find out something about a Buddhist monk who is wandering across the countryside doing no harm to anyone.
Boni believes that the monk is in some kind of danger and that there appear to be three invisible men following him, but that could just be the alcohol-=induced hallucinations. She follows the monk on his journey as far as the forest where she stays over night with him before calling in other officers, a translator and an expert in Buddhism. It's a lot of effort and manpower being expended over a wandering monk. Is something going to happen? Louise thinks so, but her instincts can hardly be trusted.
Well, there's one police thriller aspect in which Olivier Bottini's first Louise Boni Black Forest Investigations case is familiar, and that's in the nature of his prime detective. Boni is an alcoholic, divorced, assertive and rubs her superiors up the wrong way. And, as you can probably tell from the above description, she runs on hunches. On the other hand she carries a lot of personal and political baggage from French/German family background, which is quite unusual and it does set her apart from the rest of her colleagues in Freiburg.
While you try to get to grips with who Louise Boni is and what makes her operate, Bottini's writing only adds to the confusion. Dialogue is clumsy in Zen and the Art of Murder (even clumsier than that English title), and his references are often obscure and confusing, connecting up pieces that don't really fit together or make a lot of sense. Maybe that's the Zen aspect of the novel. The implication, in relation to the crime - yes, Boni's hunch is right and there is eventually a murder to solve - is that you never feel you've truly got a handle on what is going on, what people are thinking or why they behave a certain way.
The case, when it does eventually develop into a full-scale criminal investigation, is however interesting, and it's a serious one with deeper implications than you usually find in Scandi- or European crime fiction. Aside from the nature of the case itself, there is also an interesting cross-border aspect that is very much relevant to the region, but also indicative of why cross-border police co-operation is needed, and indeed why it's so complicated. It's also realistic then that while some of the mysteries are solved in Zen and the Art of Murder, other areas are impossible to fully grasp or pin down.
While the conclusion is satisfying when it gets there, there are still questions that remain about Louise Boni's alcoholism and psychological problems making her a credible investigator in subsequent Black Forest Investigations books. A little more background is provided however in an additional short-story included with this edition 'Dark Death' that looks back at the Calambert case that sent Boni into a tailspin two years previously.
Zen and the Art of Murder: Black Forest Investigations 1 by Oliver Bottini is published by MacLehose Press on 11th January 2018