Zeh, Juli - 'Dark Matter' (translated by Christine Lo)
DARK MATTER is a detective story with a physics theme. The basic story is an apparently simple one. A happy family consisting of Sebastian, a professor of physics at Freiburg University; Maike, his impossibly beautiful wife who helps to run an art gallery; and their ten-year old son Liam, temporarily separate during the summer holidays - Maike on a cycling tour, Liam to scout camp, and Sebastian to spend time in solitude working on his latest theories about the nature of time. While Sebastian is driving Liam to the camp, however, a terrible event occurs. Before he can properly react, Sebastian is sucked into a vortex of terror and criminal activity, and the contented existence of the family is ruined.
These events are described in the first 100 pages of the novel. In parallel with them, we learn of the close friendship and professional rivalry of Sebastian and Oskar, who met when undergraduates. Oskar is now a very successful physicist working in Geneva (presumably at the Large Hadron Collider), but he travels to Freiburg to visit Sebastian and his family for dinner once a month. There are unsettling but vague dynamics between the three adults.
After these 100 pages, the perspective of the novel switches to being mainly that of two members of the police. One is the local chief of detectives, Rita, who is already stressed out by a case in which patients at the hospital have died after being given an experimental drug, leading to media theories that a consultant physician is carrying out unauthorised clinical trials, in cahoots with the pharmaceutical industry. The "Sebastian case" (which I call it so as not to give anything away) is added to Rita's workload, as there is a possibility that the two are connected. The other main policeman in the novel is Rita's old teacher Schilf, now nearing retirement and plagued by headaches and dizziness. He is bought in by Rita's superiors (to her resentment) to try to resolve the two cases before the media find out about the second and have a complete field day. Schilf is very ill; his behaviour is dominated by his internal life and relationship with his disease. His methodology is to seek to understand Sebastian's theories of time and the origins of the universe in order to gain insight into why the crime(s) happened, whereas Rita (thankfully) is more conventional and pragmatic, being entirely concerned with who committed them.
DARK MATTER is a novel of strange and obsessed perspectives, where people behave more as if they are in a dark fairy story than in real life. The three main women in the story (Rita, Maike and Julia) are practical, direct people; whereas the main male characters (Sebastian, Oskar and Schilf) are anything but. The perpetrator(s') motivations may be a bit unusual compared with your average fictional criminal(s), and the behaviour of some of the detectives eccentric, but there is nothing complicated about what is going on. The book isn't about science in the sense of trying to explain concepts, but is about how the author thinks scientists think, feel and behave. Of all the many scientists I have encountered in my life, I'm not aware of having met any like Sebastian and Oskar, but what do I know what is going on beneath the surface!?
For me, the detectives and their investigation were more interesting than those of the people tied up in the crime, who are all a bit irritating, whether parodies or stereotypical. Rita is by far the most attractive, and down-to-earth, character in the book. The physical and metaphysical aspects provide an interesting and unusual perspective for a crime novel, but it is an approach whose charm wears a bit thin on me after a while, particularly when it is manifest as too much "intellectual" sympathy for the criminal(s) and their motivation, and none for the victim(s). I find it a little annoying that, for example, a crucial witness to a crime can be dismissed as "irrelevant" by Schilf, when clearly he isn't in reality, only in Schilf's personal filter through which he is experiencing and judging events to get an answer which works for him.
Despite some reservations and a suspicion that it is occasionally a bit pretentious, I did enjoy this clever novel - not least because of the excellent translation of the confident prose describing an obfuscating, convoluted set of circumstances and different types of parallel events. I particularly liked the way the translator deals with the wordplay that forms one of the crucial plot elements.
Maxine Clarke, England