When Berlin police detective Jan Tommen wakes up in bed with his girlfriend, to discover he’s completely forgotten the last two days, that’s annoying. But when he’s arrested for the torture murder of a judge with whom he clashed in the past, it becomes terrifying. His worst fear is that he might have done the crime – he can’t recall a thing.
But (in the great tradition of improbable detective heroics) he makes a plan to escape from custody with the help of a friend who lives on the margins of Berlin’s underworld. He recruits two more friends, a (gorgeous, of course) female medical examiner and a computer geek (obligatory in every thriller) to figure out what happened. There are further murders from the same culprit, so he knows he’s not guilty – but his police colleagues don’t.
That’s the premise of Until the Debt Is Paid, first in a series by Alexander Hartung, translated from German by Steve Anderson.
First, I’ll say what I liked about it. Until the Debt Is Paid was not what I expected. When I pick up a European mystery, I pretty much assume dark, nihilistic stuff in the tradition of Scandinavian Noir. This book was nothing like that. Jan Tommen is a throwback to older German stereotypes – he’s cheery and optimistic and enjoys life. He has his dark moments, but he snaps back. This was refreshing, especially since the story involves some extremely shocking elements. And the final solution was a surprise (at least for this dull reader).
What I disliked was that the police procedures seemed (to me) more 1970s TV than real life. I don’t believe the German police are this loose in their disciplines and security. I don’t think Jan Tommen would have remained free for more than a few hours in the real world. Also, at one point he foolishly plays around with a gun in a way no professional ever would.
And (without dropping a spoiler) one plot element that pleased me in terms of my values went horribly bad.
As for the translation, I’d call it good. It starts out excellent – I was impressed as a translator myself – but it lost some luster as it proceeded, slipping at times into dull literalism. But I can’t really fault that. I know from experience that translating a whole manuscript is a lot of work, and you sometimes run out of time, so you make sure the first few chapters are polished up nice, hoping you’ll have won the readers’ good will by then.
My takeaway: Not bad, and distinctive as a departure in tone from genre tropes. But poorly researched and lacking in plausibility.