Translated by Rachel Ward
Reviewed by Annabel
I’ve come late to German ‘Queen of Krimi’ Simone Buchholz’s novels. Hotel Cartagena is the ninth of her books featuring the Hamburg-based State Prosecutor Chastity ‘Chas’ Riley, of which four now have been translated into English. The good news is that although Hotel Cartagena is the ninth in the series, in this case it stands alone perfectly well, which is a relief, having agreed to be part of the blog tour for this book. Now, I really want to read the others.
Chastity is with a group of police colleagues celebrating the 65th birthday of retired cop Faller, they’re in a bar with a view at the top of a skyscraper. When I tell you that the book is dedicated ‘For Alan Rickman’, you’ll probably realise a little of what’s going to happen next! But though this novel is inspired by the setting of Die Hard, it’s a very different story.
Chastity is our narrator, and she’s a breath of fresh air. Confidence in herself is her watchword, although she is slightly disconcerted when she arrives in the bar to be faced with an ex-lover and a current occasional lover; her main relationship at the moment is with Stepanovic but it’s a troubled one. Theoretically, he should be there too – so she asks where he is:
And Carla says: ‘We thought you might know.’ There’s that undertone. ‘We thought you might arrive together.’
They are a close-knit group, and as you might expect, relationships between them can be tense and complicated, but tonight they’re all here for Faller. They go to the bar to get cocktails, and Chastity is faced with a pina colada with too much garnish.
He pushes his glass over to me, but does so rather too fast, I jam my left hand pretty much into the pineapple, and the leaves or thorns, or whatever they are, as sharp as a dragon’s teeth, rip open the inside of my thumb, I say, ‘wow, deep,’ Klatsche says ‘oh,’ Anne Stanislawski raises her eyebrows and says ‘fuck,’ Carla says we’d better put some disinfectant on it, and stands up to go to the bar, and that’s the exact moment that the first shots are fired.
That single sentence above is typical of Chastity’s narration, you have to keep up! I loved the way she can describe the personalities of her colleagues in just a few words. She is one sassy and perceptive lady. The cut on her thumb is important, as it turns to sepsis over the hours of the hostage situation, and her narration will reflect the pain and delusions that come with increasing infection as the hours go by.
But Buchholz pauses at this point, instead taking us back several decades to meet Henning who is struggling to find his place in life in Hamburg. He makes a snap decision to take the first ship out to start a new life – and ends up in Cartagena, Colombia. He gets a job in a bar, starts learning Spanish, and is beginning to enjoy life, when he comes to the attention of Esteban who has a proposal for him.
The twelve suited gunmen are all heavily armed, obviously well-rehearsed too. The hostages are efficiently herded and guarded; any women who wish to leave are let go. ‘Number One’ as Chastity refers to him, says the bar is open, and she takes advantage of this to grab a tumbler of vodka on ice to dunk her throbbing thumb in. She also tells us how she finds him attractive! All the way through we wonder whether any of the policemen will be overcome by the impulse to act and be heroes, the suspense is palpable.
‘Number One’ is only interested in one of the hostages though. This is Konrad ‘Conny’ Hoogsmart, the hotel owner, and as a live stream is set up to broadcast his interrogation, you sense that there is a revenge motive for the siege.
The siege plays out in real time, with Stepanovic, who had arrived late, left increasingly frustrated on the ground with the hostage negotiators. We alternate between him, Chastity and the continuing story of Henning in Colombia.
The siege timeline is written in short chapters, the action evolving in real time. The prose is breathless, the dialogue is snappy, it’s gritty and utterly compulsive. It reminded me a little of classic noir but given a modern edge; Elmore Leonard too, sharing an excellent sense of humour, especially on Chastity’s part. Henning’s story unreels more slowly, told in longer sections spread through the book, gradually bringing it all together as you’ll have worked out by now. The ending is jaw-droppingly well plotted.
I loved the way that Buchholz gave us Chastity’s thought processes all the way through alongside her observations and conversations, which get more fragmented and delusional as her infection increases; Buchholz constructs this very stylishly. The witty text has such an immediate feel and must have been fun to translate. I am very glad to have made the acquaintance of Chastity Riley and will definitely read the others in the series. Wonderful stuff!
Annabel is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny.
Simone Buchholz, Hotel Cartagena (Orenda, 2021). 978-1913193546, 276 pp., paperback original.
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