So, next in my occasional feature where I catch up on the back titles in a series before I review the latest release, are the first two books in the Chastity Riley series by Simone Buchholz. I will be reviewing the latest release, Mexico Street, tomorrow, so let’s see what we’ve missed so far, shall we?
‘The hair stands up on the back of my neck and I get an age-old feeling in my belly. Like there’s a fight ahead. Like something’s really about to go off…’
After convicting a superior for corruption and shooting off a gangster’s crown jewels, the career of Hamburg’s most hard-bitten state prosecutor, Chastity Riley, has taken a nose dive: she has been transferred to the tedium of witness protection to prevent her making any more trouble.
However, when she is assigned to the case of an anonymous man lying under police guard in hospital almost every bone in his body broken, a finger cut off, and refusing to speak in anything other than riddles Chastity’s instinct for the big, exciting case kicks in.
Fresh, fiendishly fast-paced and full of devious twists and all the hard-boiled poetry and acerbic wit of the best noir, Blue Night marks the stunning start of a brilliant new crime series.
When you first jump in to this novel, you can be forgiven for thinking it is the second or third book in a series and go off hunting for books one and two so you can catch up on the back story. But you won’t find them, certainly not in an English translation anyway, so you must just get to grips with the nature of the narrative construct that the author has used, disjointed and non-linear, jumping back and forth in time, bobbing between different characters’ viewpoints and using a mixture of straight forward narrative, snippets of memories and random thoughts. It is a very unique approach, and one that takes a little getting used to but, once you get in to the rhythm of the writing, it is pacy and gripping, but also poetic and lyrical and strangely effecting, given the genre.
So, we meet Chastity Riley, a state prosecutor for the city of Hamburg, following some kind of fall from grace which we discover more details about as the book unfolds but never really discover the whole story. She has been consigned to what basically amounts to babysitting a victim of a crime as her recovers in hospital, waiting for him to divulge evidence that made lead to them catching the perpetrator. Inevitably things turn out to be more complicated than anticipated and the simple assault opens onto a world of drug running and gang warfare.
The crime investigation is fascinating and brilliantly portrayed but fairly straight forward and the less interesting part of the book for me. What really stood out and made this a really startling and noteworthy read was the character of Chastity herself and the people with whom she surrounds herself. She is a flawed and complicated person with some kind of darkness driving her that is compelling but never fully uncovered in this book. She is obviously tormented, has unwise attachments and is someone we long to know better but know we have barely scratched the surface of what there is to understand about her in this book. The author reveals some of her innermost thoughts, while keeping so much still concealed and making us care for her deeply, whilst maintaining her hard veneer, all at the same time. It is some of the most skilful writing I have read in a long time. You get the feeling that the reason we can’t fully understand what drives Chastity is that she isn’t quite sure herself.
On top of the fascinating characterisation, I was really drawn to the dark and gritty portrayal of the Hamburg underworld, a setting I have not read about before. Despite the fact that the author is describing some of the seediest and least attractive parts of the city and its inhabitants, there is still a sense of life and affection and kinship here, perhaps more so than Chastity now feels with some of her law enforcement colleagues. The book blurs the lines between good and bad, wrong and right and light and dark in an intriguing way.
This is a book that takes you places you’ve probably never been before, and leaves as many questions as it answers, but with a deep affinity for Chastity and an urge to discover more about her, to help her figure out her life whilst she herself perhaps doesn’t feel the drive to do so. It is a relationship different to any I think I have had with a fictional character before.
I just have to mention the translation of this book, which is seamless and impressive. All of the nuance and sensation of the book has been maintained, the poetry and lyricism of what is, in places, sparse language. Not an easy feat, I wouldn’t have thought, especially to leave the reader without any inkling that they are reading a piece of translated fiction.
Delightful, in a deeply noir-ish way.
You can buy a copy of Blue Night here.
On a warm September morning, an unconscious man is found in a cage at the entrance to the offices of one of the biggest German newspapers. Closer inspection shows he is a manager of the company, and he’s been tortured. Three days later, another manager appears in similar circumstances.
Chastity Riley and her new colleague Ivo Stepanovic are tasked with uncovering the truth behind the attacks, an investigation that goes far beyond the revenge they first suspect…to the dubious past shared by both victims.
Travelling to the south of Germany, they step into the elite world of boarding schools, where secrets are currency, and monsters are bred…monsters who will stop at nothing to protect themselves.
On to book two and this book is a horse of a slightly different, but equally unusual colour, to the last one. Beton Rouge has a much more straight forward narrative that Blue Night, less of the disjointed skipping around and back and forth. As we are now fully conversant with the main characters, there is less back story to be woven in and we can focus more on the current situation, and the new characters the author throws in to stir up the mix. And stir it up they do, particularly Chastity’s new partner on the case, Ivo Stepanovic, who is more than a match for Chastity. Even a soulmate, perhaps?
The story switches to and reveals different aspects of the Hamburg social hierarchy from the first book, as we move from the night time streets of St. Pauli and the Reeperbahn to some of Hamburg’s most powerful men and the world of elite boarding schools. The plot even ventures out of Hamburg to a small village in Southern Germany and secrets hidden behind ancient school walls. And, as things are switching up in Chastity’s work, so drastic change is rippling through her social group at the same time. Everything is changing, and we follow Chastity as she tries to work out how all of these things are affecting her.
The book is written in short, sharp, snappy chapters which bowl the plot along at a riveting pace and the criminal investigation is again deliciously twisted and captivating. However, it was Chastity herself and her life and relationships that fascinated me once more, and formed the more absorbing part of the book. Her acid humour cuts through the narrative like a whiplash and makes it a joy to read, her developing relationship with Ivo, the way they bounce off each other, the new side of Hamburg that both Chastity and the reader see with his guidance were all great aspects that hooked me in to the plot. At the same time, her other deteriorating relationships bit deep, and I could feel her conflict and her pain. I think I’ve become a little obsessed with her, to be honest, and the way the author has achieved this in a couple of books with less than two hundred pages in each and pared back, not-a-word-wasted text is an admirable skill.
The more I read of this series, the more invested I have become in the character and her life. The more I get to know her, the more I want to know, and to burrow through the layers of complexity and defence she has built around herself and understand what makes her tick. The author has created a wonderful character and world in this series, and I have a feeling it is just going to get better and better.
Fresh, quick and surprisingly moving, whilst being dark and dirty. I absolutely loved it.
Beton Rouge is also available now and you can find it by following this link.
If this has whetted your appetite for this crime series, I hope you will head back over here on 13 March to read my review of the third title in the series, Mexico Street. I’ll see you then.
About the Author
Simone Buchholz was born in Hanau in 1972. At university, she studied Philosophy and Literature, worked as a waitress and a columnist, and trained to be a journalist at the prestigious Henri-Nannen-School in Hamburg. In 2016, Simone Buchholz was awarded the Crime Cologne Award as well as runner-up in the German Crime Fiction Prize for Blue Night, which was number one on the KrimiZEIT Best of Crime List for months. She lives in Sankt Pauli, in the heart of Hamburg, with her husband and son.
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