Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Paulus Hochgatterer x 2: The Sweetness of Life and The Mattress House

In both The Sweetness of Life and The Mattress House, crime takes a back seat to psychology; no surprise there if you consider that the author of both of these novels is a  child psychiatrist.  It should also come as no surprise that children feature heavily in these books, as does a shrink who specializes in pediatric psychology. While there are some pretty gruesome crimes in both novels, the author takes a roundabout way to their solutions while revealing  psychological portraits of not just victims or perpetrators, but of several denizens of the town of Furth am See, the fictional setting  in Austria in which the two main characters live and work.  Psychiatrist Raffael Horn is constantly questioning himself, as is Criminal Commissioner Ludwig Kovacs, while they both try to understand what makes people in the town do what they do.  While most novels of crime fiction afford the reader a glimpse here and there into the private lives of the good guys and often get into the psychology behind criminal actions, Hochgatterer does something different with these novels. Whereas most crime fiction stories focus on the crime and its solution, he starts out with a crime, starts the investigation rolling, and then intersperses both of these aspects throughout several chapters that center on the people involved directly, peripherally, and sometimes to throw you off the trail, not at all -- in the long run, it's really the reader's job to sort it all out.   This is not to say that the crimes he dreams up aren't heinous or that there's a lot of needless psychobabble between the covers of these books; what Hochgatter delivers is just a different variation of what most readers are used to in terms of crime fiction.  I'm not sure yet if this rather unorthodox  approach works for me or not as a crime reader, but it is different, and worth looking into as a reader in general.  It also makes me wonder if it isn't time to start looking at crime fiction in a new way.


MacLehose Press, 2012 (UK)
originally published as Die Süiße des Lebens, 2006
translated by Jamie Bulloch
248 pp
(trade paper ed)
The Sweetness of Life has one of the most eerie beginnings I've read in a long time. A little girl and her grandfather are in his home, playing Ludo (an American equivalent would be the game Sorry) while the snow falls outside in the night.  A knock comes on the door, the grandfather opens it, and steps outside. Thinking she'd play a trick on her grandfather when he came back, she takes two pieces off of their squares.  But the grandfather doesn't return, and the little girl goes outside to see what's going on. Eventually she makes her way to the barn, where she makes a horrifying discovery: the grandfather is laying dead in the snow, his head flattened and bloody.  She doesn't tell her parents what happened -- her father will find that out the next day. Still clutching the game pieces, she makes her way across the property to her home, and when it is time to go to bed, her mom tries to take them away. That's when the screaming began; since then she hasn't uttered a single word.

Enter Ludwig Kovacs and Raffael Horn; Horn to try to help the little girl recover from her trauma and Kovacs to figure out exactly what happened and who would do such a grotesque thing.  Horn is married to Irene and has two sons, the eldest of whom has moved out. Horn spends a great deal of time pondering his move to Furth am See, as well as his relationship with his family, but he is also quite preoccupied with his patients and their respective psychoses. He has a habit of thinking out loud, but he's a good psychiatrist and cares deeply about his job.  Kovacs is divorced, and has an arrangement with a woman named Marlene in a relationship based on sex; he works with a team of detectives who are all very sharp, but this crime has stymied them.  He needs Horn's help -- the little girl was the only witness, and she's not able to say a thing.

The story is told through various points of view including those of Horn and Kovacs, but there is also a priest who runs and who is never without an Ipod, even during church services, and a boy who dresses up like Darth Vader whose brother has just returned from prison. As the story progresses, their stories expand little by little in alternating chapters, and the reader gets to know bits of their life stories and how they are connected not only to each other, but to the town as well.  Along the way there are other interesting side stories that emerge, especially those of Horn's patients, and some of them are so unsettling that you may periodically have to put the book down and walk away.

In terms of crime, as I noted above, the author has definitely taken a new approach here. Solving the crime is actually less of a concern than revealing what lies beneath the psychological surface of this small town. Although the investigative set up is pretty standard and police procedures are described much like those in other works of crime fiction, as the story drifts from perspective to perspective, it takes a while for clues and other helpful elements to emerge.  Although the motive for the crime is ultimately intriguing, neither it nor the criminal emerge until the very last few pages and then the book is over. But at least the murderer had a motive; that is not always true in the case of others in this story who have committed terrible acts of violence, or even those who know what's going on and refuse to get involved and let these horrible things happen.

This approach may not be to everyone's liking, but it is worth giving a try.  If you are inclined to judge it solely in terms of other crime fiction novels you've read, you may be disappointed, but if you stop and really think about what you've just read and that Furth am See just might be representative of other towns in other countries, it will add another dimension to your reading experience.


MacLehose Press, 2012 (UK)
originally published as Der Matrazenhaus, 2010
translated by Jamie Bulloch
246 pp
(trade paper ed)

Once again Paulus Hochgatterer uses his unconventional storytelling methods in his latest novel centered around a most horrendous and appalling crime to pry loose the secrets in his fictional town of Furth am See. I thought the crime in The Sweetness of Life was bad; this one is so much worse that I wasn't sure if I'd be able to get through the book. This time he explores crimes committed against children, my least favorite topic in any kind of novel. One thing before I get into my review: on both book covers there is a very misleading statement, telling the reader that each book is a "Kovacs and Horn Investigation," but this is not actually true. While the police do go to Horn for help, it's not like the two ever team up with Kovacs handling the police end of things and Horn offering possible profiling advice or psychological insights. I realize that in some crime fiction this sort of partnership exists, but it is not the case here. So dispel yourself of that notion immediately.

This installment of the series finds Horn busy with policy changes at his workplace, friction at home between himself and his rebellious son, spending time thinking about his wife Irene and the staff at the hospital.   In the meantime, Kovacs' sexual arrangement has gone a bit awry as he finds himself falling in love with Marlene; his daughter, whom he hasn't seen for quite a while is also coming to town, he's temporarily missing one of his best detectives, and he also spends quite of bit of time pondering his colleagues. In between all of the respective personal issues, Kovacs and his staff are working on some rather odd cases: a few children have turned up beaten and bruised somewhere between their homes and school and are refusing to talk, and the only thing they will say is that is was the Black Owl that did it; a death occurs on a scaffold and no one is certain whether or not it was an accident.  Meanwhile, Horn is busy with his patients both on the wards and in a therapy group, while dealing with their  family members as well.  He is also asked by the police to work with the children who suffered the beatings in an effort to get them to talk about their ordeals.  But what neither of them are aware of is a young girl living in a house where the most unspeakable things occur.

Once again the story is told via alternating perspectives, those of Horn, Kovacs, and  now a teacher (who has her own issues) who has become the love interest of the running priest with the Ipod from Sweetness of Life.  Added to these is the voice of a young girl named Fanni, who exists with an eye to escape and  making other preparations for when the time is right. She is there when a very small child is brought to the house, and the sad story of what is happening there is spread throughout the novel in bits & pieces.  As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Hochgatterer's agenda this time is child abuse and violence toward children in any form.  While the beatings bring the two main characters to wonder whether or not they ever struck their children, adding  to their list of things to ruminate about, Kovacs'  missing detective is off working with a group working toward combating child pornography and child violence. 

There is a great deal of pondering going on in this novel, so much so in fact that at times it interrupts the narrative flow and the going can get boggy.  In all fairness, since Hochgatterer's focus is on what's beneath the surface, having his main characters do a bit of self-analysis and deepthink is definitely in line with what he does with the other characters; after all, this is part of his approach to writing.  The problem is that maybe there's a little too much reflection going on when other things are happening in the story, and especially in Horn's case, his personal reflections seem to detract from the kind of  intense attention he displayed with his patients in the first novel. They also go on and on when the rest of the story is waiting to be told; truth be told, it's a bit annoying. 

At the heart of this book you will find a very haunting story,  but around it Hochgatterer's examination of society and its secrets is also well constructed.  Again, it's not the usual linear point a to point b resolution that is expected in most crime fiction, but rather a look at what drives people, what secrets they're hiding, and how your next-door neighbor might be showing you one face while harboring an inner, more monstrous life you never would have imagined. Add to those ideas  the interconnectedness among these people and others within the framework of a town and you get an idea of what he's trying to accomplish.    This author is taking a great deal of risk in writing crime fiction this way, and other than a few minor little issues, I think he's succeeding. 

The style does take some getting used to, so I'd start with Sweetness of Life to get the feel for the author's writing and because there's always value in starting with the first book of any series. I liked it although I came away from it with feeling  a bit on edge, not due to the author's writing or any other fault, but because the core story was just so incredibly sad, and because I know that the reality behind it exists everywhere.  Just an FYI: there are enough graphic details in the story that put a picture into your head, so be warned. This book is NOT for the fainthearted, nor is it a light read at all.  I had to go do something fun after reading it just so I wasn't thinking about it all day and making myself depressed.

crime fiction from Austria


  1. We were lucky enough to get THE SWEETNESS OF LIFE back in 2008 here downunder. My review, I very much enjoyed it and will look for the other.

    1. I liked both of them, actually, very much. The second one tends to be a bit more wordy, but this author is now on my watch list for new releases. His explorations of people are phenomenal and the way he sets up a crime is amazing.

  2. I liked both of these too, though after I'd finished my review of #2 I re-read my review of #1 and saw that I'd said pretty much the same things about both books! I thought the ending of the first one was weak, but the second book as a whole was better. It's an interesting series, as you write, a bit different. I am fond of psychologists in crime fiction, and there aren't that many of them about at the moment since Jonathan Kellerman/Alex Delaware "took the plunge".

  3. I used to love Alex Delaware but eventually they all blended into the same book and I just couldn't read them any more. These books have a unique approach that I really like , although in book two, Horn really does ramble!


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