Zen And The Art Of Murder by Oliver Bottini

The Blurb On The Back:

Louise Boní, maverick chief inspector with the Black Forest crime squad, is struggling with her demons.  Divorced at forty-two, she is haunted by the ghosts of her past.

Dreading yet another dreary winter weekend alone, she receives a call from the departmental chief which signals the strangest assignment of her career – to trail a Japanese monk as he wanders through the snowy landscape to the east of Freiburg dressed only in sandals and a cowl.  She sets off reluctantly, and when she catches up with him, she finds that he is injured, fleeing some unknown evil – an evil so insidious that Louise Boní may never be free of its shadow. 

You can order ZEN AND THE ART OF MURDER by Oliver Bottini from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

42-year-old Louise Boní is a chief inspector with the German police force, based in Freiburg Krio and assigned to the investigative task force for the Breisgau-High Black Forest district.  Her life is a mess.  Her husband left her several years earlier after revealing that he had engaged in affair after affair throughout their marriage and three years ago, she shot and killed René Calambert a Parisian school teacher who had abducted and repeatedly raped a 14-year-old girl.  They found the girl still alive in the boot of Calambert’s car but she died 4 days later.

Ever since then, Boní has increasingly turned to alcohol to cope and is haunted by troubling visions of Calambert’s body bleeding out in the snow.  The booze is affecting her ability to do her job and has attracted the notice of her chauvinistic boss, Rolf Bermann, who has the power to force her into therapy and drop her from the task force, effectively ending her career by consigning her to desk duties.  

So when Bermann calls her on a Saturday – her day off – and tells her that she has to get over to Liebau where they’ve had a call from local officer Sergeant Hollerer about a bald, Japanese zen Buddhist monk dressed only in robes and sandals who’s been making his way through the snowy region – Boní reluctantly complies.  She knows Hollerer from having previously worked with him and he’s not one to call for help unless he needs it or has been forced into it (in this case, he’s been forced to call it in my Liebau’s mayor).  

The monk – who appears unable to speak German and refuses to give anyone his name or explain what he’s doing – appears to have been injured and his silent journey is upsetting the locals, who are unused to such a sight.  To win the monk’s trust and try and get him to open up about what has happened, Boní spends the night out in the forest to keep him company and in doing so, becomes convinced that he is being hunted.

But Boní‘s alcoholism makes her judgment open to question and the decision is made for Hollerer and his younger colleague Niksch to continue trailing the monk until a translator can be found to find out what he’s doing.  When both officers are subsequently shot, Boní is pulled off the case completely and put on forced sick leave as Bermann becomes convinced that the monk – who has now disappeared completely – is responsible.  

Sure that something else is going on Boní decides to investigate by herself off the books, calling in favours from her colleague Lederle and drawing in a zen Buddhist expert called Richard Landen to advise her on why the monk is acting as he is.  Doing so draws her into a dark underworld hiding in plain sight, an underworld that will do anything – and kill anyone – to maintain its appearance of respectability …

Oliver Bottini’s crime novel (the first in a series and translated from German by Jamie Bulloch), is a cliche-riddled, plodding affair revolving around a self-pitying alcoholic who isn’t good at her job.  Too many questions are left unanswered at the end (including what happened to the monk), the “chemistry” between Boní and Landen is non-existent and characters are essentially stereotypes, some of which border on racist.  Not a series for me.

The book was first published in Germany in 2004 and I’ll preface the review by saying that some of the issues may be down to the translation as I understand that this is a popular series over there so it could well be that there is something about it that I’m missing.  Unfortunately I found it tedious from beginning to end, not least because the pacing is incredibly slow and the writing quite clunky at times – in fact I frequently had to turn back pages to try and make sense of what was happening because it just isn’t clear on the page.  

For starters, the idea of an alcoholic, mid-life female detective has already been done to death (even back in 2004) so there needed to be something to elevate Boní and her troubles.  Although Bottini constantly harks back to the combination of her guilt over Calambert’s death, the trauma she’s feeling since her divorce and then weaves in a troubled upbringing with her parents fractious marriage and the death of her brother in a car accident, none of it actually quite rings emotionally true and that’s partly because Boní is a character who at no point explains what she is feeling or why she is feeling it – even to herself.  

There are some excruciating scenes where she reconnects with her mother and father and attempts to quiz them on some event from her childhood that she thinks explains the breakup of their marriage but there is no explanation for why she thinks the event is important and Bottini ensures that neither parent engages with her on it – no doubt so it can come up in future books.  Similarly, given that we learn her husband was a cheating rat virtually since the start of their marriage, I was never sure why she was so emotionally devastated by the divorce – Bottini suggests that it’s because the husband blamed her for being unattractive in some way but that’s not clear and there just isn’t enough depth there to justify why she would internalise that and not feel angry about it.  Indeed, given that she has no trouble getting significantly younger men to sleep with her when she wants to, I was left confused as to whether she thought she was unattractive or not.  There is slightly more explanation for her feelings over Calambert’s death but again, given what we get told of the circumstances, it’s confusing as to why she feels guilty over it as he is shown as being a violent misogynist (and indeed there’s a bonus short story at the end expanding on it, which suggests he was someone who definitely had it coming).

There is a very ham fisted attempt at suggesting a romantic connection with translator Linden who is – and I am being as kind as I can here – an utter wooden plank of a character.  We learn very little about what he’s like other than that he has a pregnant Japanese wife and is a dedicated student of zen philosophy.  What attracts Boní to him is completely unclear and also unclear is what he would see in her – especially given her very creepy habit of ringing him at home and hanging up.

I picked this up because I was interested in the monk storyline and discovering what he was doing.  Bottini opens the book by making a pointed comment about the narrow mindedness of small town Germany and the suspicion with which the locals view him as he walks through village after village.  The problem is that he is not developed on the page – Bottini choosing to leave him defined by “otherness” as Boní and her colleagues fail to connect with him or understand what he’s doing (and Linden essentially takes the view that they should leave him to it because it’s all zen and they don’t understand).  When we eventually learn in the final quarter what caused his journey, it makes even less sense to be honest and given that he completely disappears and no one gets a definitive answer for what’s happened to him (although there is a strong suggestion), I found it all somewhat frustrating.

Also frustrating is how all the Japanese/zen characters are little more than caricatures, notably the monk in charge of a monastery who comes across as a Japanese Yoda, complete with broken English.  Given that Bottini hints at the history between Hollerer and Boní, I was hoping for some kind of friendship or relationship there and indeed this is one of the strongest parts of the first third of the book.  Unfortunately he then largely disappears from the page and although there’s a suggestion that he will re-appear in later books it does serve to isolate Boní further (and her failure to really try to engage with him just left me further disconnected from her).  Similarly Lederle’s push-me-pull-me relationship with Boní is underdeveloped and seems very by-the-numbers.

My biggest issue with the book though is that Boní is such a bad detective.  She forgets things, she misses things, she fails to make obvious connections.  She only gets anywhere by deliberately disobeying orders and putting herself in danger and although much of this is down to her alcoholism, because we don’t know what she was like before then it left me utterly bored and wholly unconvinced.  I don’t mind a flawed detective but at least make them semi-competent at her job.  To be honest, I was left wondering why Bermann hasn’t taken her off the job months before (and again, it’s really not clear).

Bottini seems to want to nod and wink about the chauvinism and racism at play in small town Germany and the police force but at the same time he perpetuates it through his characterisations.  Similarly he appears to want to highlight the hypocrisy of the middle classes and how middle class, white professional respectability can mask some truly hideous activities.  And that’s fine but there’s no development here of who the culprits are or why they’re doing it and no real resolution of what happens to them so it all comes across as somewhat empty and meaningless.

Ultimately, nothing in this book worked for me and while it ends with the idea of Boní addressing her demons and, perhaps, will come back stronger in future books, I just didn’t care enough about her to want to read on.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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