Stalking Wolf Haas's The Bone Man

Charlie Kennedy

Reading the back-cover blurb is a big part of the sell when trying to capture a new reader, and on that front, The Bone Man fares perfectly well. The location is the Austrian countryside, the main premise is a gruesome discovery of human bones found amid chicken bones at a popular fried chicken eatery. The protagonist is ex-Police Detective-turned-Private Eye, Simon Brenner. So far, so good. The basis for a crime novel is set.

Unfortunately, the book itself sometimes fails to live up to its blurb. The Bone Man is Haas’s second novel translated from German, in the crime series featuring Private Eye Brenner. Haas has certainly built up plenty of positive press—The Bone Man has even been adapted to film—but I’m not entirely convinced of how or why the book deserves such praise. While one could perhaps forgive Brenner a number of sins on account of the inexact nature of translation, and perhaps forgive the reviewer—myself—for not having read any previous works in the series, the crimes committed within these 161 pages are too foul to entirely write off.

So, where to start? The novel opens with Brenner eating chicken at the restaurant where human bones have recently been discovered by health inspectors, strewn among the chicken bones in the basement. Why anyone would sit and eat chicken at a place where human bones have been found is something of a mystery, let alone the fact that the restaurant probably would have been closed down. But, after all, it is fiction. And no, of course it’s not really chicken meat that Brenner is devouring. From the outset, a dry-witted narrator fills the reader in on the recent events and Brenner’s reason for being at the chicken shack, and by 'fill in,' I mean summarize. The reader learns that Brenner is pining over his ex-fiancée, who ran off twelve years prior; later we’re told that Brenner served nineteen years as a policeman. And there's your backstory. If you haven't read any of the previous works in the series, you'll have to catch up quickly. Who’s the narrator? Oh, that’s God speaking. How do I know? Well, I don’t, actually. I just happened to read the press release that came with the book. You might know, of course, if you’ve picked up Haas’s previous novel, which is tellingly named Brenner and God. In The Bone Man the reader is given two read-between-the-lines instances that indicate the narrator is not human. But the reasoning behind this stylistic choice is never fully explained.

Haas also has a tendency to repeat phrases incessantly. Again, one might suppose that it’s the nature of the translation and the liberties taken by the translator, for why else would the expression needless to say appear 46 times in 161 pages of prose? That’s almost a tenth of the novel. And yes, I counted, for fear of developing a nervous twitch.

For the most part, the reader is kept within the point of view of our narrator—let’s call him God, for namesake. At one point in the novel we do shift our perspective to the character of Krenner for a brief amount of time, though it’s not clear why, or what value this adds to the story. Besides the colloquialisms, a foggy jump into the story and an unidentifiable narrator, perhaps the biggest flaw, in my mind, is that the structure is tangential. Brenner runs around playing Private Eye and piecing the murder mystery together in a frustratingly lethargic manner. The reader isn’t allowed any real access or insight. Sure, as a reader, I want to be kept on the edge of my seat throughout the entire story and I certainly don’t want to be able to solve the mystery before the protagonist. But the problem is that the reader isn’t entirely invested in the story to begin with.

However, Haas does supply the reader with some witty moments. But, for the most part, the laughter is lost and it sometimes feels like I’m left missing out on an inside joke.

The press release that accompanied The Bone Man stated, "none of them [the mysteries] would be solved if [Brenner] were murdered, too. It's a race for the solution." Some might see the novel as a race to the finish, but I see it as more of a schlep to the end. Brenner solves his crime case only when he’s confronted by the murderer in a walk-in freezer, who’s wielding a butcher axe (and I’m going to guess that most people faced with such a situation would probably come to the same conclusion, too). The press release also describes “thrilling action” within the novel, yet the most we’re offered is a severed head in a football sack and Brenner’s hacked off pinky finger. Perhaps some readers will find this kind of action thrilling, but it wasn't enough to satisfy me throughout the novel.


The Bone Man
By Wolf Haas and Annie Janusch
Melville International Crime, 2013
ISBN: 978-1612191690


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