Palmer's fiction moves from darkly psychological romance to faintly expressionistic, highly theatrical storytelling--as a German professor of Slavic languages takes a most Teutonic soul-journey, complete with some classic grotesques, plunging from ""logical"" living head-first into death-ribboned passion. Martha Schulte, uncomplaining wife of 24 years to Kaspar, has died of natural causes while driving on the Munich autobahn. Kaspar does not grieve unduly; even his two grown sons, who dislike him, have known of his five-year affair with lab technician Heidi. And the only creature whom Kaspar truly loves, his cranky, wise-cracking Uncle Stilts (an octogenarian dwarf), cackles ""Done her in, have you?""--after receiving news of Martha's death while ensconced, as usual, in his royal-size four-poster, rosy with a red night-light. But Martha's death nonetheless seems to unhinge Kaspar in some way-even as he casually marries nice Heidi (who has unsuccessfully been warned off by both Uncle Stilts and a young stranger). He drifts, contemptuous and amused, into a single-minded, dangerously loony network of Croatian activists. He hungers to hear Uncle Stilts' life story (could it somehow be his own?) --as, with theatrical pacing, Uncle doles out episodes of his bygone adventures in one ""box"" or another: a secret chess-genius dwarf for the circus in 1905, hidden inside the miraculous ""Chess Machine"" (playing against crowned heads and heels, including the doomed Tsar at the Moika Palace); a prison inmate (""Good old box. . . nothing could touch me there""). Then, when Uncle dies and Heidi becomes pregnant, Kaspar responds to Uncle's last piece of advice--""think of me and dive in head first""--and leaves Heidi to find a grand passion in Yugoslavia: an ""old whore"" whom the Croatian cause has ""caught by the throat."" And Kaspar will eventually find himself bound by the filaments of a spy web, compelled to commit murder, and--finally--waiting for the ""night music"" (a Rube Goldberg spy code) that will announce his own death. An odd, exotic, thoroughly European item: not for everyone, to be sure, but captivatingly told--with some enticing, fantastical theatrics. . . and just the slightest whiff of decadence.