Sunday, June 24, 2012

Interesting, though: Brenner and God

There was never a riotous crowd in front of the abortion clinic, but somehow that silent threat from the church-types was even more menacing, because there's nothing worse than a sighing aggressor. A well-known fact: behind every mass murderer there's a mass sigher.

Simon Brenner is an ex-cop. Now he works as chauffeur for the 2-year-old daughter of an abortion doctor and a construction magnate, shuttling her between them. One day while he's at a gas station counter, little Helena is stolen out the car.

His sense of duty (not so much to his employers but to the job he was hired to do) as chauffeur and guardian, his feeling of guilt, and his old police instinct conspire to overrule any compunction he has about leaving this matter to the proper authorities. Really, even while he's following up leads, he wants to know, and he wants the job done right, but you sense that he'd rather not be involved at all.

Brenner and God, by Wolf Haas, is newly translated and issued by Melville House (available June 26). It turns out that this story is several books along in a series starring Brenner (and a few of them have been made into movies). There are hints of back-story, but certainly this novel reads well as a standalone. Definitely I would love for more of this Austrian series to be available in English, please.

The real cops are essentially absent from the story, and since we follow the plot from Brenner's point of view, when they do appear they come off, unsurprisingly, as somewhat incompetent. There are lots of leads (and nonleads) on this case, and it's not immediately clear which ones to follow. On the mother's side, there are antiabortionists and politics, and on the father's side there's a lot of money and politics, and on both sides there are people with their hands in other people's pockets.

But here again is the advantage of being the murderer. You don't have to go around agonizing about the little moral prescriptions.

The undisputed star of this novel is its narrator, exhorting us to "pay attention, because this is important" (which makes you pay attention) and making witty observations — "interesting, though:..." — about the characters, or life, and interpreting situations for us, occasionally skipping ahead a bit of the story and prefacing the retelling with "believe it or not" (which makes it more believable). Also, there's a constant reminder that the immediate events are unfolding 35 hours after Helena disappeared, or 53 hours, etc, which makes for excellent pacing.

There are some graphic bits, but the overall tone thanks to the narration is light, and even when the narration casts doubt on Brenner's sanity and motivation, we root for him the whole way.

What does God have to do with all this? Well, Brenner meets him, and the experience is pivotal in spurring Brenner on to follow through.

The good lord just gazed upon all this with a smile because — free will.

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