Passport to Crime

Enough Is Enough

by Thomas Kastura

 

Translated from the German by Mary Tannert

The mourning bell at Mühlendorf Cemetery clanged dully beneath the overcast December sky. It was the Saturday before the second Sunday of Advent, and it rained, steadily and heavily, as if unseen powers sought to wrap the burial in a damp cloak of oblivion before it was even over. Even the crows were silent as Fred Dennert set out on his last earthly journey.

Dennert was, perhaps, the most unknown, unappreciated writer in Franconia—a part of Bavaria richly blessed with authors who were thwarted, underestimated, and, especially in their own view, misunderstood.

Apart from the priest, only a few mourners followed the coffin. First among them were Dennert’s three “card brothers” from his regular Saturday-night games of Sheepshead. He didn’t play cards so much for the company as for the opportunity of a few hours of unpredictability at least once a week amid the relentless uneventfulness of his life. It was a narrowly defined unpredictability, to be sure: The wins and losses of a heart -solo were never life-threatening.

Dennert’s fellow card players were followed by his cleaning lady, her patent-leather pumps sinking wetly into the soaked soil of the cemetery path with every step she took. She had never succeeded in getting to know her employer better; he had always presented himself as an amiable but unapproachable loner. She never held that against him, though; she knew he had fallen hard for those two imaginary mistresses: Art and her fickle sister Inspiration.

Behind her, Mr. Brandeisen, the district attorney, was rejoicing that he had thought to bring a large umbrella, a handmade article sporting the label of a London umbrella maker, James Ince & Sons. As Dennert’s only friend from school days, who had visited him in Mühlendorf once a month for the purpose of intellectually stimulating conversation, Brandeisen was to hold the graveside eulogy.

There had been nothing more important to Dennert, nothing more valuable, than writing. He had allowed nothing to distract him—not the ties of human love nor the call of an academic career. Instead, he had pushed his way forward into that “pencil zone” in which the Swiss writer Robert Walser had spent his life, even if the latter had done so chiefly while tucked away in a sanatorium.

The difference was that Walser had left the world a legacy of printed, published work. Not so Dennert. “Our dear Fred,” as Brandeisen explained, “wrote a novel every year since finishing high school without a soul ever knowing about it—except for me, because I had the honor of providing critical commentary on his manuscripts. But the world has never read a single line he wrote. He leaves thirty novels to his credit, but under no circumstances did he want them published. He wrote for no one, and as soon as he considered a manuscript finished, he never gave it another thought. There was nothing more foreign to him than conventional notoriety. Like Balzac before him, Dennert thought that fame was a poison useful only in small doses.”

Brandeisen paused. It was quiet in the little cemetery at the edge of the village. No cars drove by, there was no one on the rain-soaked streets.

“From your fascinated expressions, I conclude that you want to hear more,” he went on. “Allow me to honor Dennert’s accomplishments at least once, and to bow before his genius, even if he surely wouldn’t have cared at all. His artistic achievement consisted of tilling the soil of just one topic as tirelessly as the faithful peasant tills his native fields: Every single one of his novels was set on Christmas Eve.”

Brandeisen looked around the soggy company. To his dismay, none of them showed any reaction to this revelation. “Now, you might say this wasn’t particularly spectacular. You’ll worry that Dennert was given to sentimental impulses. But you’d be very wrong there. He had dedicated himself to nothing less than the lifelong task of retelling Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol.”

Brandeisen peered carefully once again at the priest, Dennert’s card brothers, and his cleaning lady, all of whom wore expressions like those of first-graders having the theory of relativity explained to them. It was clear they needed enlightening.

“I’m sure you all know A Christmas Carol. An old miser named Scrooge receives a visit during the night from his dead partner and three other ghosts, who ultimately motivate him to change his life. That sounds introspective and socially critical, a typical Dickens story. But what does Dennert do? He varies the plot. Early in his writing, he transformed the tale into an existentialist drama à la Beckett: The miser waits for the ghosts, but none of them ever arrives. Then Dennert went on to the nouveau roman and outdid himself in detailed description, leaving out the ghosts as unnatural and thus indescribable phenomena. In his third novel, suddenly all the ghosts are Nazis in SS uniforms, calling to mind the German ‘director’s theater’ of the 1970s and 1980s, with its radical changes to the original story. When that phase was over, Dennert stuck with the classics for a while: Scrooge dies following a fencing duel after being injured with a poisoned poker—Hamlet. Scrooge makes a pact with the devil and seduces the maid—Faust.”

Brandeisen paused. His bedraggled listeners around the freshly dug grave were staring listlessly across the small cemetery and down into the Aurach Valley. But Brandeisen went on. “Early in the 1990s, Dennert decided to expand his art to include science fiction and fantasy: Scrooge was abducted by aliens and had to do battle with all kinds of dark forces bent on conquering the world. Last, but not least, he discovered crime fiction and painted Scrooge as a quirky investigator who solved unsolved cases.”

The smell of freshly dug earth mixed with the trails of incense, and the priest began to clap without warning, which Brandeisen took as a sign that he should move on to the end.

“So much for the work of Fred Dennert,” he said. “Yet it is tragic—and metaphorical—that he died in the act of changing a light bulb. Just days after his fiftieth birthday, he fell inexplicably from an ordinary stepladder and broke his neck. Was it the ladder of knowledge on whose topmost rung he lost his balance? Or did he just have an attack of weakness during a night of sacrificing himself in the mines and tunnels of fantasy? However he went: May he rest in peace.”

And with that, Brandeisen took a copy of A Christmas Carol out of the pocket of his overcoat and threw it onto the coffin, following the book with a spadeful of earth before stepping to one side so that the other mourners could say their own goodbyes.

As he stood, contemplating the pitfalls of daily life, he heard the noise of an engine nearby. A heavy all-terrain vehicle that had evidently been parked to one side of the tiny cemetery suddenly revved and set off in the direction of town, its motor howling and its tires squealing. Brandeisen’s attempt to catch a glimpse of the license plate was thwarted by the heavy rain.

“Do you know who that was?” he asked the priest.

“Probably some young speed demon, making sure we know he’s here.”

“That racing start seemed a little abrupt, coming as it did right after I finished speaking. That’s just not right.”

The priest shrugged. “At any rate, what you had to say about Fred Dennert was extremely interesting. I had no idea. . . .”

The district attorney spent a few moments talking to the other mourners as they stood in the cemetery chapel’s porch, which was tiled in a fashion reminiscent of a public swimming pool. Dennert’s cleaning lady handed him the key to Dennert’s bungalow. It was she who had found the body a week ago and called an ambulance. Brandeisen had seen the autopsy report: “Cause of death: a fracture of the second cervical vertebra (axis) and the destruction of the respiratory center.”

Brandeisen thanked all the mourners for their sympathy and drove back to Bamberg, where he dictated a couple of juicy indictments to his secretary to clear his mind. Bereavements in his circle of friends always left him feeling somewhat unmerciful. Besides, it was nearly the weekend, and he wanted to get all his routine business out of the way, because a Herculean task was waiting for him: examining and ordering Fred Dennert’s literary remains.

Early the next morning, he opened the local newspaper, Frankischer Tag, and could hardly believe his eyes: The regional section that covered the area around Bamberg featured an obituary of Dennert. It was only one column and there was no photo, but even so, clearly the priest had found time after the burial and Brandeisen’s eulogy to send a few lines to the press. Fred would have disapproved; he had always wanted to shuffle off his mortal coil without leaving any trace of it in local history. But perfection was for schoolmasters and psychopaths, thought Brandeisen, and set off for Mühlendorf.

It was unusually quiet at the end of the little side road where Dennert had lived. Wisps of fog hung over the now-bare fields all around. Brandeisen’s heart pounded as he stepped inside Dennert’s 1960s-era bungalow, which always reminded him of the old Chancellor’s Bungalow in Bonn. The interior was dedicated to classical modernism, with lots of glass, steel, and right angles. Brandeisen went into Dennert’s study. Here a laptop computer rested on a desk surrounded by tall bookshelves. Nothing had been touched since the body was taken away. As always, the latch on the door to the terrace was unlocked. Anyone could have come in at any time—a careless habit for which Brandeisen had frequently reproached Fred. The fatal stepladder still stood in the middle of the room underneath the spherical pendant lamp.

Brandeisen paused for a moment in reverence. The air was full of a contemplative severity and simplicity: the solitude of a hermit’s cave. Then he sat down on Fred’s office chair and started his computer. It seemed a little strange, waiting for the humming and clicking of a machine to call up someone’s life work. All the processors and circuits in Fred’s computer knew nothing of the intellectual labors that had preceded his typing.

Brandeisen wondered how best to proceed. Should he follow Max Brod, who had published Kafka’s work after the latter’s death against his will? Or was his the task of the conservator who merely safeguarded the inventory? There was also the option of an intermediate approach: copying everything onto an external disk drive and sending it to the German Literature Archive in Marbach. Or he could delete everything irretrievably: Wouldn’t that have been what his dead friend wanted most?

Brandeisen risked a look at the file manager and quickly reached a surprising conclusion: There was nothing to sort. Fred had evidently been a Zen master of organization: All his manuscripts, preliminary studies, synopses, and research results had been meticulously and sensibly filed in the directories and subdirectories. The final versions of his novels appeared to be ready for print.

This literary legacy must seem like a treasure trove for an editor in search of the next bestseller, thought Brandeisen: that person would be able to choose freely from among whatever conceivable literary fashions currently promised the best sales figures. There was even an early erotic thriller featuring Scrooge as Casanova: Only Fred could think up something like that.

Then Brandeisen’s glance fell on Fred’s e-mail, and his conscience gave him another twinge. Was it right to view Fred’s private correspondence? A few mouse clicks taught him a valuable lesson: Letters, too, were part of a writer’s oeuvre. Fred had corresponded actively, especially with other writers, some of them from the same region.

Brandeisen sat still for a moment. It may be true that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but what many people don’t know is that the fury of a fellow author could be much more destructive and unscrupulous. Writers begrudged each other even the sugar in their coffee, the butter on their bread. So whatever had possessed Fred to make contact with minds who, from his perspective, could only be inferior? Naiveté?

What Brandeisen read did not paint a pretty picture. Every e-mail message Fred had received oozed hypocrisy, boot-licking, and badly concealed envy. Fred had been in touch with three fellow authors who had each wanted to pump him for information on what he was writing, the general drift of his plots, the nature of his poetics, etc. In his answers, Fred hadn’t betrayed anything, preferring to talk about the daily problems of a writer’s life. The question of lighting played an important role: Some liked it dim and secretive, others preferred the brightly lit feeling of a big office. . . .

Brandeisen froze and then turned slowly toward the stepladder Fred had stood on to change the bulb in the luminaire. Envy, resentment . . . Some men found nothing worse than a neighbor with a new car that was bigger and had more horsepower than their own. Why should things be any different in the world of authors and novels?

Suddenly filled with a dark presentiment, Brandeisen got up and moved toward the ladder for a closer look. It was the kind of wooden instrument often found in libraries, with five steps and a simple mechanism for folding it shut. Normally it stood next to one of the bookshelves, but Fred must have set it up here to change the bulb. The next-to-the-top step had proven to be his undoing: It had broken under his weight.

Brandeisen bent over it. It seemed to him that the line of the break was just a little too tidy. In fact, it looked sawed, he thought, as he ran his fingers over the rough edges.

Six letters took shape in his mind: Murder.

The idea struck him like a blow, but the shock quickly gave way to his hunting instinct. When Dennert’s cleaning lady had found his body and called the ambulance, she had assumed he’d had an accident. For that reason, and while obviously no one had examined the stepladder, the police hadn’t even been involved.

Did the cleaning lady have a motive? That was hardly likely: Brandeisen knew her to be a loyal soul who had looked after Fred solicitously. Relatives? Fred didn’t have any. He was the last of his line. Friends? His fellow Sheepshead players were all honest men. Nothing suspicious there.

From where Brandeisen stood, there were precisely three suspects: the three writers with whom Fred had corresponded—Rambold von Oed, Luis Harms, and Clara Clementina Clinair. Were the names pseudonyms? That remained to be seen.

First of all, he needed an impression of who and what they were, and that was most easily accomplished by looking at their websites. After all, most writers these days had a presence on the web as a form of self-marketing. And Brandeisen was intrigued to see what ghostly figures would appear to him there.

Rambold von Oed was clearly the Ghost of Christmas Past, as his old-fashioned name made clear. His home page revealed a lot of work: The design was chic, the photos professional. The text offered a plethora of information on the author’s innumerable public readings. He had an international circuit, with the Goethe-Institut funding his travel as far as the backwoods of India. At the same time, he was regionally active, hosting finger-painting workshops for preschoolers. The list of honors, literary prizes, and writing scholarships he had won was endless. His place of residence was listed as “New York—Hong Kong—Bamberg.” In the photographs, he was bald and sported a pince-nez.

The website made him look like a successful man, thought Brandeisen, but von Oed’s oeuvre could best be described as meager. Beyond a volume of poetry in Franconian dialect that had appeared in an obscure little publishing house thirty years ago under the title Toodle-oo, he had published nothing, and nothing meant, in this case, nothing at all. Nichts. Nada. His business model seemed to consist of milking the single cow in his stall until it fell over.

“Maybe he truly had nothing more to give,” mused Brandeisen out loud. And in that case, a novel would help him get through another thirty years. That’s why he came in during the night through the terrace door, copied Fred’s novels onto a USB stick, and manipulated the light bulb and the ladder. “What a devilish plan!”

Happy to have at least one scenario, Brandeisen called up the next website, convinced that writers were full of criminal energy. But aside from a contact address in Hohnhausen that was so absurd it had to be true, everything about Clara Clementina Clinair was doubtful. She self-published all her own creations as e-books. In and of itself, there was nothing wrong with that: The digital revolution enabled a lot of new approaches to publication. A whole host of authors took this path successfully, believing themselves free of the clutches of the established publishing houses. Just like Clara Clementina Clinair. In other words, she was the Ghost of Christmas Present. Her sentimental romances had been bestsellers until she was forced to admit publicly that she had copied them all from old dime novels and published them under her own name. There was even a statement on her website to this effect—probably owing to a court order. So Clinair was more than merely a little interested in unpublished works that she could claim to have written without anyone noticing she hadn’t. Plagiarism freed her conveniently from the onerous obligation to write something of her own, and a novel by Fred Dennert would have been just the ticket. Maybe she had even found a bricks-and-mortar publisher for it—and a new pseudonym.

Brandeisen leaned back in his chair. He now had two candidates for the role of murderer, both with clear motives. What about the third author, Luis Harms?

He had no website. And to judge from the e-mail correspondence between Harms and Dennert, they had even, exceptionally enough, gotten along well. One could even speak of a certain meeting of minds, since Harms likewise refused to publish what he referred to as his “scratchings” or to make them available to a wider audience than himself. One of his messages contained a reference to a tiny village called Oberailsfeld. Brandeisen looked it up online and found its location in the hilly part of Franconia known as Franconian Switzerland. Without hesitating, he reached for his car keys.

            

 

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Copyright © 2018. Enough Is Enough by Thomas Kastura

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