The casualties of war provide cover for a brutal serial killer.
Napoleon’s occupation of Prussia in the early 19th century has left the landscape blanketed with noxious flies swarming over corpses, excrement and food. In the manner of his recently deceased mentor Immanuel Kant, narrator and sometime sleuth Hanno Stiffeniis is performing scientific tests on this detritus in hopes of convincing the French to clean up Prussia for the health of all. His mission is unexpectedly interrupted by a request from Colonel Antoine Claudet of the French army. The valuable amber abundant in the Prussian terrain has become a prized commodity, and the French are digging it up to take back to Napoleon when one of the Prussian women working with the amber is found murdered. At first it’s assumed that Kati Rodendahl was bludgeoned in the face to obscure her identity, but after some probing, Stiffeniis suggests instead the killer’s anger that the victim had been concealing amber. Teaming up with the compassionate Dr. Heinrich, Stiffeniis unearths plots within plots. As more victims follow, the case becomes emblematic of the raw and angry feelings of the populace and, as Stiffeniis faces bureaucratic obstruction, the volatile political atmosphere. It also becomes frighteningly personal for the detective. Gregorio’s grim finale is leavened by a ray of hope.
The third dose of Stiffeniis (Days of Atonement, 2008, etc.) boasts the same strong evocation of history and, refreshingly, a looser and more confident narrative voice.