Zen and the Art of Murder by Oliver Bottini

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

We are not in Japan, but Germany; set in the snowy Black Forest, not far from the French border, this novel starts with ‘maverick chief inspector’ Louise Boni being told to investigate a strange, lonely man wandering through the snow, an unknown Japanese monk. She is resentful of this odd task, and does it without understanding or enthusiasm. But the monk – who, we learn later, is a student of Zen Buddhism – captures her imagination through his reserved asceticism and his obvious fear. She has been called in because the local inhabitants are afraid for themselves, selfishly and foolishly worried that they might have to provide, or that the authorities will not be able to stem a flood of similar refugees, but he only wants to move on, away from his unspoken fear – and he does this, plodding doggedly through the snow, cold and frightened but somehow resilient and calm as well.

Curiously, after this very striking and troubling opening, starkly monochrome with snow, winter trees and the monk disappearing into the white, we hardly hear of him again. But the enquiries as to where he has come from, and why he might be leaving, lead to murder, and the suspicion that there is something seriously wrong going on under the cover of a Zen Buddhist centre, the Kanzan-an, nearby (an is a hermitage or retreat in Japanese).

Boni is a troubled soul – overweight, divorced, and with an unfortunate overreliance on both alcohol and younger men, she is deeply troubled about an event in her recent past; we know little about this, but it is clear she feels she may have acted wrongly and that tragedy resulted. Actually, these events are appended to the book as an extra, a short story which stands alone, but while reading the book, you don’t know what happened. But you get to learn a lot about Boni – she is taken off the case, put on leave, and referred for psychiatric help, but carries on investigating anyway. She visits the monastery, gets help from an expert on Japanese Buddhism, and sleeps with a very young man while fancying the Buddhist expert horribly (though he is married and expecting a child). She stays with her mother, and starts to talk about her father – an absent and hated figure – and is clearly trying to put her own life right while worrying about the monk and the evil he is fleeing.

While this is not very credible in many ways, and the crisis-ridden detective finding some sort of salvation has moved beyond cliché, this is a good read. It comes to a dramatic conclusion, and while the prose (translated by Jamie Bulloch) is on the pedestrian side, it is an unusual story in a different setting – not Oxford, not Venice – and I enjoyed it.

The investigation is over well before the end of the book, but there are two important strands to be explored thereafter. First there is the search for the criminals, which is more thriller than detective story, and second there are Boni’s attempts to put herself right. She doesn’t make a lot of progress on some fronts – there’s a lot of alcohol and a lot of lusting after young men and another woman’s husband – but she does have a long talk with her father, who emerges from some unknown place and time when she is hurt (and who cleans her house for her return from hospital!), and eventually she goes to the Kanzan-an by herself, when the case is closed. She has talked to the roshi (master or abbot – not the word my dictionary gives for abbot, but that is the role he has – roshi seems to mean way or path) and been both appalled and stirred by his control and commitment, and she has explored a key question with another adviser: ‘Explain to me why the centre of the universe is in my tummy’. Now, she has decided to stay at the Kanzan-an, and explore, I suppose (the book stops there) breathing, meditation, and conquering the ego.

Perhaps we will find out in the next books in the series, A Summer of Murder and In the Name of the Fathers, to be published in autumn 2018 and spring 2019. In the meantime, the book ends with the fourteen-page short story, Dark Death, which tells us something of the events prior to this book which so strongly affected Boni.

Oliver Bottini, Zen and the Art of Murder (Maclehose Press, 2018). 9780-857057662, 384pp, hardback.

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