Beware of crime novels narrated in the first person. Actually I sort of like first person narration. Being inside the head of a character and seeing the world from their perspective makes for interesting reading. Then again, in a crime novel the head of a narrator who is also a criminal (or someone with potentially criminal intentions--however inadvertent) can be a treacherous place and on more than one occasion I've not enjoyed the view. With two earlier novels by Ingrid Noll under my belt I've come to expect unusual stories and unusual women telling them. Strangely you almost find yourself sympathetic towards the characters even while they shock you with their thoughts and actions. The Pharmacist (Die Apothekerin translated by Ian Mitchell) is no different.
Once again this is a story where the point isn't to suss out the criminal. The answers the reader is looking for isn't 'who' but 'why'. The Pharmacist is sort of like a train wreck waiting to happen. You can see it coming but you're just not sure how bad it's going to be. And Noll takes a different angle this time around. I was thinking as I was reading how much this was a cat and mouse story, but it took a while to decide who was the cat and who was the mouse.
Hella Moormann is a murderess. Well, at the tender age of twelve she accidentally had a run in with a classmate that left him dead. It truly was an accident and once she begins spinning her tale you forget all about that nasty business when she was a child. Instead you become immersed in the story of her personal life. Hella is one of those women who can't help choosing men who need help. She falls for men who are having a harder time in life than she is.
"While my improper escapades never did come to the attention of my teachers or classmates, I was unable to hide them from my horrified family. Without a doubt, I broke my father's heart at the time. His innocent blonde child was hanging about with queer fish and lame ducks who would have been better kept out of his sight. And, to make matters worse, I didn't grow out of this even during adolescence. Just as, when I was small, I would unscrew my dolls' legs in order to patch them up again, so later on, I would trawl up men who had gone off the straight and narrow and try to restore them. It helped me get over my own problems better if I had the strength to redeem strangers."
Her latest cause is Levin Graber, a handsome dental student. Hella falls for him hard, but it becomes quickly apparent that Hella, a successful professional woman, has chosen a charming but needy (and ultimately lazy, selfish and deceitful) prospective partner. Hella works as a pharmacist. While her university friends have all married and started families Hella is still looking. She wants marriage, a home and a family and looks to Levin to provide it. Levin is a poor student with a rich grandfather, who wants Levin to finish his studies before giving him any money. And when one day Levin discovers a set of glass bottles in Hella's apartment, antique bottles containing poison, he begins forming a plan in his mind where he and Hella can get rich quick and have all the nice things in life with little effort from either of them. There's a twist, however. Conveniently provided by Levin's grandfather who puts a clause in his will naming Hella the sole beneficiary...if she marries Levin. If not, the money goes to charity.
Matters are complicated when an old friend, just out of jail, returns. Levin owes him money and Dieter is determined to get it back. His wife Margot had been working for Levin's grandfather, but Margot's slatternly ways get on Hella's nerves. And then there's the question of what Dieter ever saw in Margot and why he married her--and worse why she's trying to lure Levin away. I don't want to give away any other details of the story, but Noll creates a rather claustrophobic love triangle where love turns to scorn. And then things begin to get messy.
Hella tells her story from a hospital bed. Her roommate, Rosemarie Hirte (who was the narrator in Noll's Hell Hath No Fury), is an eager listener. Each night Hella shares a new installment as she slowly reveals to Rosemarie and the reader just what happened to Levin, Dieter and Margot and why she has ended up in the hospital. It's a clever way of telling a story since the reader can glean from Hella's visitors as well as her building of the tale just what happened. Although macabre in tone, Noll never fails to interject her signature acerbic wit.
It's a pity more books aren't available in English from this author, who is referred to in Germany as the "Queen of Crime". I think my favorite of her books remains the first I read, Head Count. It's thanks to Caroline that I was first introduced to Noll, when she wrote about The Pharmacist just last year. Now that I've finished her novels I'll have to look for a readalike--maybe more Ruth Rendell or Minette Walters? Noll is quite similar but she has a style quite unique and all her own.