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Hammesfahr, Petra - 'The Sinner' (translated by John Brownjohn)
Paperback: 338 pages (Sep. 2007) Publisher: Bitter Lemon Press ISBN: 1904738257

One otherwise unremarkable sunny day, Cora Bender decides to end her life. Instead, she ends up stabbing a man to death in full view of his friends and her family. There seems no reason, and Cora, when taken into custody, is determined to keep the motivation for her actions hidden. When taken into custody she confesses, wanting it left at that, coming up with a tissue of lies when pressed for more detail. However, that isn't enough for police commissioner Rudolf Grovian, who embarks on a determined hunt for the real reason behind Cora's sudden frenzy, despite her desperate evasions and lies. It turns into a hunt that leads him to the revelation of one young woman's private, hellish past.

Petra Hammesfahr's THE SINNER is a brilliant book, an absolutely masterly piece of crime fiction. Once again I find myself endlessly grateful for the continuing zeitgeist of translated crime, which means that we English readers get the treat of reading this exemplary psychological thriller, a haunting descent into the torments of one woman's youthful years. Gradually, through the screen of deceptions and half-truths Cora desperately tries to construct to stop people finding out and confronting her with reality, Hammesfahr pieces together the details of her tragic past, and one horrific instance in particular. It's a past and a psychology elaborated with compassion yet directness, a savage crime explained with a strange underlying tenderness for its perpetrator.

THE SINNER immediately reminds you of the style of books written by Barbara Vine and Minette Walters, where harrowing events in the past are gradually uncovered and explain the present. It shares that with the Vines', and it shares a quicker pace and more direct thrust with the Walters'; it has the piercing psychological insight that is common to both. And these are high compliments indeed. It's an immensely powerful novel, suspenseful from the first page to the last, and so very gripping; one of those books I can read late into the night without a care for sleep or any early starts I might have, all through a need to know exactly what drove Cora to do what she did, what could possibly lie behind it. One of the troubles with this kind of book is that a *lot* of build-up creates a reliance on a particularly satisfying pay-off, and sometimes that pay-off, the shocking secret, isn't good enough enough, but that's certainly not the case here. The whole thing builds into a satisfying, surprising (but very internally plausible) conclusion, a great final revelation which shocks at the same time as making complete sense. Hammesfahr conjures rationality out of a psychological mess, out of an opaque plot riven with both truth and lies, and in doing so shows how good her plotting has been, too.

In honesty, I can't really praise this book enough. It's a brilliant piece of work, focused, fascinating, and very well written indeed. It's a great mystery and a first-class psychological portrait of a woman tormented by her past. I really cannot recommend it highly enough. It's a book where you never really know where you are, or necessarily where you're going, but you know you definitely want to be on the journey. There's been a lot of buzz about Stieg Larsson's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, and deservedly so, but this first translation from Hammesfahr is without doubt of equal quality, and deserves just as much praise. In the foreign crime novel stakes, it was best I read in 2007 (no, forget that: in the plain old crime novel stakes, it was the best I read in 2007), and, along with that Larsson, the crop for this year's Duncan Lawrie International looks very strong indeed... Read it. Then make them translate more.

Fiona Walker, England
January 2008

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 11/10/2009 11:53