Zen And The Art Of Murder: a bleak mid-winter

Zen2The cover art of this book perfectly captures its sensibilities: a lone individual, trudging in an endless, featureless expanse – seemingly aimless, isolated and disoriented. ‘Zen’ shares much with the stranger side of Scandinavian crime fiction: that slippery sensation of disconnectedness; an understanding that important things are happening but they seem to be just out of sight. As much is expressed through implication as explanation – a form of storytelling which some people find rewarding but which demands active participation on the part of the reader.

The opening scenario is simply superb. It has the feel of a scene which the author dreamed and then was compelled to share with an audience – attaching a plot and storyline to it seems almost superfluous. We’re on the fringes of Germany’s Black Forest, small town MittelEurope, sparsely populated, where the inhabitants are suspicious of strangers, and anything could happen in the isolated valleys.

A shoeless, speechless monk stumbles through the snow. He won’t stop. He has no apparent destination but a definite direction of travel. He has no food, water or warm clothing. He doesn’t seem to have committed a crime but could so easily become the victim of one. Is he running away from something, or struggling to reach someone?

Inspector Louise Boni gets the short straw and is sent to resolve the situation. In itself that’s tricky enough but it’s made almost impossible because she’s in the middle of an emotional breakdown. Louise is surrounded by the ghosts of her past; the people she’s loved and lost, the people she’s been unable to save, and the people she’s been forced to kill in the line of duty. Her self-esteem is at rock-bottom: her reliance upon alcoholic assistance has become inescapable.

Louise doesn’t fit in anywhere. She’s a too French for her German colleagues, but becomes an interloper when she crosses the border. She has none of the fiery feminism which inspired her mother to campaign and protest. Her capacity to defend her increasingly irrational actions to her boss has all but ebbed away. She’s attracted to the stillness and certainty that the Zen Buddhists appear to possess, but the only way she can quiet her own ghosts is by drowning them in Țuică. And as Louise’s grip on reality fractures, so does the reader’s certainty about which events are really happening.

The result can be quite bewildering at times. You definitely get the impression that you’ve come in part-way through an extended story (and indeed there are earlier books in the series). Disappointingly, that masterstroke of the opening chapters – the mysterious monk, the main motivator of the mystery – is abandoned mid-way, cast aside and barely mentioned thereafter. Instead we spend more time with Louise in her fracturing and fragmenting reality, where she can’t remember a taxi driver from one day to the next – where her fragile psyche propels her to break rules and take unsupportable risks. She’s a wild card, tugging on loose threads in a bitter winter – propping herself up with booze and ill-judged intimate encounters.

Eventually, the author delivers resolution and some sense of an ending. But the second storyline (which takes over where the monk left off) was less than satisfying for me. Zen is not an easy or especially accessible read – I wished I’d read the previous books before tackling this one.
7/10
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Zen And The Art Of Murder by Oliver Bottini is available at Amazon

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‘Tightly written, laconic, and moves along like a buffalo on roller skates’

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