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German thrillers stink. This from an editor of a German publishing house. Indeed, the thriller/mystery genre is an Anglo thing, it was born in England and is still dominated by British and American authors, in fact so much so that if you enter a bookshop in Germany, you dont know where you are, the heaps of bestsellers near the entrance are invariably thrillers by British or American authors, often the titles arent even translated.
This doesnt mean that there are no German thrillers at all, but they rarely acquire national and hardly ever international fame. To have ones German thrillers translated into English is thus like being knighted, Ingrid Noll can really be proud! I want to introduce you to this author, she writes so-called cosy thrillers but not in the Miss Marple way, not at all. In traditional thrillers a murder is committed and the whole story revolves around the question, Who dun it?
In Head Count, Maya, a twenty-something German woman living in Florence, tells us the story of her life and the murders she and her friends have committed. Its obvious that she doesnt speak to us from a prison cell so we know theyve got away with it. Wheres the thrill then? Surely such a story can only be boring!? Lets have a look.
You better be good and above all fair to your children so that they dont develop murderous tendencies. Maya was her fathers darling, his princess, he called her Infanta after a famous picture, when he leaves the family without an explanation, the girl is convinced that he really left her to suffer from her mothers and her brother Carlos cruelty. The Infanta soon turns into an Elephanta and the bullying at home continues at school.
The only bright spot is Cora, a new classmate, the two girls become friends at once and go through thick and thin and also murders. The first victim is Carlo, Maya kills him with a gas pistol when he tries to rape Cora; no case is opened, though, because its seen as self-defence.
Before her final exam at school May becomes pregnant and marries Jonathan, a student, whos as potent as a lover as hes boring as a husband. So she takes her son and moves in with Cora, whos angled herself a stinking rich sugar daddy, two years older than her father, whose main asset is a wonderful villa in Florence, the Italian maid Emily included. She marries him but before a week has passed she cant stand him any more, when Coras parents in Germany learn at last about the marriage, shes already a widow. And Mayas father whos resurfaced into her life is dying . . .
How come? It must be mentioned that Emilia, the maid, knows German quite well, she has listened to all of Mayas and Coras intimate secrets for a long time without showing that she understands. Does she blackmail them? No, she has adopted the two young women as her daughters and Mayas son Bela as her grandson and is ready to fight with teeth and claws (a German expression) for her ersatz family. When Cora brings a hitchhiker from New Zealand into the house who threatens to destroy the balance theyve enjoyed up to then, she knows what to do.
The allure of Ingrid Nolls stories is that her characters just do what other people - we? - only dare think about and then quickly store away ashamed of our evil thoughts. A relative pesters you? Away with him or her! You wouldnt know what to do with a corpse? Ah, but there are so many ways . . .
Ingrid Nolls characters have become what they are because theyve suffered, but we meet them when theyve decided not to be victims any longer, theyre dyed-in-the-wool egotists and the word conscience does not belong to their vocabulary, theyre not immoral but amoral.
What kind of author may create characters we get to like through her sympathetic description but who indulge in perfidious murders when they feel their peace of mind is disturbed by a fellow human being? I met Ingrid Noll in my hometown on 8th March, the International Womens Day, when she read from her latest novel. Imagine a mousy old age pensioner you wouldnt look at twice because of her inconspicuousness. She studied German and History of Art but started writing only in her fifties after raising her children and helping her doctor husband in his practice - now he helps her check her murders so that theyre airtight from a medical point of view.
Shes noticed that the older a woman gets, the more she fades into the background and isnt taken seriously any more by the young uns, a wonderful position to watch people and their pecularities. Where does she get her plots from? Why, she says, open any newspaper and youll find plots galore, the difference is that the people you read about have been found out but mine arent.
Ingrid Noll lives in a small town near Heidelberg in the south of Germany, the area features in all her books. Head Count also takes us to a small village in the Black Forest and some culture spots in Florence, I can vouch that her descriptions are true to life. Its not necessary to know the places to enjoy Nolls writing but it certainly adds an extra pleasure if you do. The book is easy to read, I dont know if this is due to the fact that it is a translation or if the style is also simple in the original (I read it in English only), its not lol funny but smile humorous and tongue in cheek. [Who would have thought this of a German author? :-)]
Mayas description of the typical tourists, for example, is entertaining to read, it goes without saying that she cheats on them if shes at her wits end when it comes to facts and figures, and she steals what she can get her hands on. She doesnt kill them, though, which I find reassuring should I ever make her acquaintance as a tourist guide, heehee.
Other translated titles:
Hell Hath no Fury
Ingrid Noll has written more than ten thrillers which have all become bestsellers, you would have to learn German to read the others! Especially the one called Selige Witwen (Blessed Widows) which follows Mayas and Coras lives, they fall out with each other in the end and start fighting and as we know they know no mercy!
Head Count (222 pages) seems to be out of print, you may find it in your library or on Amazon which (today) offers 16 used copies from 1p onwards.
Maya's only memory is being at odds with her mother and brother. Her father seemed to love her but he disappeared. Maya's life is embattled until she meets Cora. The two form a friendship founded on a conviction that they are somehow separate from society and do not have to abide by its rules.