Zen and the Art of Murder

Written by Oliver Bottini

Review written by Bob Cartwright

Zen and the Art of Murder
MacLehose Press
RRP: £16.99
Released: January 11, 2018

This was probably the most difficult crime fiction book I have ever had to read. It is also one I have found almost impossible to review. I hope I can justify both those verdicts.

If you deconstruct the 278 pages of this title and the 16 or so additional pages which appear as an endpiece entitled Dark Death, you end up with a story which starts with the appearance of a Buddhist monk, one snowy Saturday morning in a small Black Forest town in Germany. The monk is scarcely dressed for the snow, clad only in a brown robe and sandals. He has a bruise above his ear and a barely healed cut on his cheek.

The local cop commences an investigation of where the monk has come from, how he got beaten up and where he is going. He calls in the expertise of the Serious Crime Squad in nearby Freiburg. There the boss, an arrogant, male chauvinist shit, hives it off to Louse Boni who only agrees to take it up when she is threatened with disciplinary action. Boni hates snow. Her brother died in the snow. Her husband left her in the snow, and on a previous case she had killed a man in the snow. The latter event has left her with a lot of baggage, which takes up much of the book and the entire endpiece. It includes a drink problem and a tiresome capacity to ruminate on the partnership suitability of the men she meets on page after page.

Reluctantly, and with no real plan in mind, the local cops, their colleagues from the French police across the border, and the Special Crime section track the monk as he treks the snowy fields and frozen forests.

The focus of their investigation falls upon a small Buddhist seminary. It is near there that two of the local cops are attacked leaving one dead and the other in hospital with critical gunshot wounds. The monk has also disappeared and is also thought to have been killed by the same unknown assailants. The monk had stayed at the seminary earlier and possibly saw or heard something there which led to the beating and his flight. But what was it? And is it related to the adoption of children from South East Asia promoted by a charity attached to the seminary?

In a nutshell that is the story, devoid of all the baggage which the author dollops over it with excessive generosity. Now I don’t object at all to complexity in crime fiction. Handled well it can hugely enhance a book as Stieg Larsson showed us. But there is complexity that works and complexity that doesn’t. Sadly, this book typifies the latter. But what is even more unforgiveable is the promise in the title and the incapacity of the book to justify the inclusion of Zen in that title. That too needs a bit of unpacking.

We all know what Zen is. Basically, it’s an esoteric kind of oriental thought and mediation. Elements of Zen sophistry are ladled out meagrely throughout the book in little soupcons from the monk, the head of the seminary, and the Japanese interpreter who is assisting the police. But none of that begins to justify the inclusion in the title.  Is there any great effort in the narrative to consider how Zen might underpin the predicament of the monk, contribute to, or conflict with, the police investigation?  That has been a historical feature of crime fiction since the days of Charlie Chang. A few years back it featured in Peter May’s Beijing thrillers. John Burdett also employed the dichotomy between occidental and oriental worldviews to his books on policing in Bangkok. But I can’t detect any application of this theme in Bottini’s writing.

Of course, it doesn’t have to involve a global dimension. Take, for example, Persig’s 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance which I thought initially might have inspired Bottini. If it did I can’t see how. For the record Persig detailed two kinds of thinking and personalities: those who are interested mainly in gestalts, romantic viewpoints like Zen but which can also be extended beyond Persig to radical political and social thinking like existentialism and Marxism, and those who just want to know the details, understand the inner workings, and master the mechanics largely for pragmatic reasons, a position akin to rational analysis.

It is very easy to suggest crime fiction series very near to home in which Persig’s two kind of thinking have enhanced, maybe unwittingly, our reading and enjoyment. One which instantly springs to mind is the Dalziel and Pascoe series from the much lamented Reg Hill. In those books Pascoe worked his socks off following all the correct police procedures while Dalziel went to the pub, sunk a few pints and smoked a few fags, before divining who had done what and why. The perfect contrast of Persig two personalities applied to crime fiction with great humour and not a bit of pain.  I would have loved to see elements of that sense of Zen, as well as some of the humour, in  Zen and the Art of Murder, but what I felt most was the pain.

Is there anything that can be salvaged from Bottini’s book? Other critics have focussed on Boni’s battle against the institutional sexism of the Serious Crime Section. That is there, but lost in the overwhelming plethora. We could draw on Boni’s other issues, the stress, the drinking, as well as her difficulties relating to people. We could, but that too has been handled so much better by so many other writers.

Very rarely have I felt so negatively about a book I have read or had to review. But in this instance I do feel justified. Sorry but that’s how it is. I am sure others will already be hailing it as a masterpiece.

Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch


Book Reviews
About Us
Contact Us

Privacy Policy | Contact Shots Editor