Ingrid Noll's Head Count (Die Häupter meiner Lieben) is a curious story, but curious in a good way. Ostensibly it is a crime novel, though not exactly in the traditional sense. There are no detectives and not even a mystery to solve. Though some very bad things do happen, there is a subtlety to the story that reminds me of the very best writing of Barbara Vine who concocts such wonderfully psychologically-complex novels.
Noll is far more interested in exploring the minds and motivations of her characters than in simply revealing who committed a crime. I knew from the outset who the perpetrators were (though not the extent of their crimes) and somehow it not only didn't bother me, but it made me all the more interested in them--almost like watching specimens beneath a microscope with equal parts fascination and shock. And not even in a necessarily judgemental way. One of the blurbs on the back cover calls this a "gruesomely jaunty account" and that is a totally fitting description. Although the story verges on the macabre, Noll has an amazingly light touch. She laces her story with a surprising amount of humor, black humor, but humor nonetheless.
The story concerns two rather remorseless young women who without a shred of guilt (or very very little anyway) manipulate those around them. Maya comes from a broken home. Her father left them when she was very small, so she has a glamorized sense of him, thinking of him as the king and she as his Infanta. Her mother, who works in a nursing home, has little time for her and in any case prefers her son over her daughter. Maya's life is made miserable by her brother Carlo who takes a twisted pleasure in tormenting her. Both mother and son begin calling her the Elefanta, or variations on the theme, since she has no other coat to wear but a large grey cape. It's no wonder she has a rich fantasy life.
She's saved, though some might argue this point, by a newcomer to her school. Cornelia, or Cora as she is called, is everything Maya isn't--rich, sophisticated, lovely and from a close-knit family. Cora is also pretty wicked. Perhaps if the two hadn't met and combined forces they would never have gotten into the trouble they eventually find themselves. It all begins with petty thievery, which Maya has honed down to a fine art but will over time turn into something altogether darker and more deadly.
For a short time Maya and Cora's paths veer off in different directions. Maya marries young and finds herself in an unhappy and unsatisfying relationship. Cora ends up in Italy with a much older man who is something of a playboy and a rich one. Italy has always been both of the young women's dream destination, so without much thought and few worries Maya sets off, with baby in tow, to return to her friend. They decide to let nothing or no one get in the way of their individual happinesses.
Although Noll writes her story in a linear fashion most chapters begin in the present and then move to the past to fill in what came before. She does it so seamlessly you almost don't realize it is happening, so engrossing is the story. In a sense you know the ending, which is Maya living and working as a tour guide in Italy, though you don't know exactly what the crime is. It reminded me a little of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley and also a bit of Natsuo Kirino's Out (which reminds me I need to read more of both authors' works). You are inside the criminals' minds and while it is a little uncomfortable to be there, it's also very interesting, and you almost can't help yourself hoping that neither character (in the case of Maya and Cora) gets caught. Does that sound awful?
It's thanks to Caroline that I discovered Ingrid Noll. She recommended her to me as a highly regarded German crime writer. Caroline wrote about her book The Pharmacist, which has many similarities in style to Head Count. According to the biographical information in my book Noll is hailed as "Germany's Queen of Crime" and her novels have sold over 700,000 copies in Germany alone (as of the 1993 publication date of my book). She has also been translated into more than ten languages. I find it perplexing then, that not only are her books out of print in English, but only three of them were ever translated to begin with. Such a pity since she is a fine writer and the translation by Ian Mitchell seemed exceptional as well. I've already requested Hell Hath No Fury from interlibrary loan and suspect I will do the same with The Pharmacist as well. I think Ingrid Noll is another of my great finds this year.