A possible miscarriage of justice drives the busy plot of this complex legal thriller, the first English-translated work of a popular German author.
Hans Arbogast, a married traveling salesman whose brief sexual encounter with a female hitchhiker resulted in her death, is convicted in 1953 of second-degree murder. Did Marie Gurth, a former resident of an East German refugee camp, die of strangulation?—or, as Arbogast ingenuously alleged, of natural causes following rough sex? It’s only after Arbogast has spent 16 years in Bruchsal Penitentiary that crime-novelist and human-rights activist Fritz Sarrazin and attorney Ansgar Klein manage to get the case reopened. All turns on whether an overzealous prosecutor coerced Arbogast’s confession and a prosecution witness willfully obscured details of an autopsy report that noted in the deceased woman’s body “a weakened condition as a result of a partial abortion.” (This is all based on a notorious real case.) Hettche maintains a brisk pace throughout, juxtaposing Arbogast’s prison experiences and confused memories of his misadventure with the actions of a host of involved legal, criminal, and forensic authorities. The result is a convincing cross-section of postwar German society, and the tantalizing implication that divisions among Hans Arbogast’s accusers and defenders parallel Berlin’s awkward status as a divided city. Sarrazin and Klein are absorbing characters, and the enigma of Arbogast continually deepens, particularly during his explosive retrial testimony. Hettche stumbles with the character of forensic pathologist Katja Lavans, whose interest in the case becomes more than clinical. But he rekindles interest smartly in the closing pages, in which the “accident” that caused Marie Gurth’s death is speculatively declared “an eruption . . . a vestige from the war that suddenly discharged.”
Nothing innovative here, but Hettche manipulates the genre’s conventions, and the reader’s pulse rate, with enviable skill.