Juli Zeh: Schilf (UK: Dark Matter; US: In Free Fall)
Theoretical physics or a detective novel? This novel is both, an unlikely combination. The novel is set in and around Freiburg, where Sebastian, his wife Maike and their son Liam live. Sebastian is a theoretical physicist, which he teaches at the university. When he went to university as a student, he met Oskar the first day at physics class. They immediately took to one another, not least because they were by far the tallest students in the class, each one measuring about 1.9 metres (about 6ft 3 inches). They became close friends, doing things together and, in particular, studying together, usually only buying one copy of a textbook, which they studied together.
Things changed, when the professor set the class a particularly abstruse problem to solve. The next day, the pair walked up to the blackboard and wrote out the complex equation, which answered the professor’s question. However, Oskar instinctively went to the right, leaving Sebastian to go to the left. Sebastian felt that Oskar chose the right because only he would have been able to write the equation backwards. What was even more galling is that Oskar was probably right. While they still remained friends, the relationship has not been as close since then. Sebastian met and married Maike and they had Liam. Oskar went to Geneva, worked on the particle accelerator and remained single. Oskar now takes the train to Freiburg on the first Friday of every month, to have dinner with Sebastian and family.
Oskar and Sebastian spend much of their time together arguing. They disagree on many issues. Oskar looks like the kind of person who could answer every question put to him. Sebastian is not so confident. Oskar is working on theories relating to time and in particular, the Grand Unified Theory, aka The Theory of Everything. Sebastian is working on nanotechnology (or at least, he says he is, though we later learn that this is not entirely true). Oskar’s work is published in learned scientific journals. Sebastian has just been interviewed in Der Spiegel. This is in relation to his interest in the Many-worlds interpretation, which Oskar has long since rejected. It is also because of a recent spate of murders where the alleged perpetrator claimed the murders were not murders but merely a scientific experiment. He had travelled from the year 2015 (this book was published in 2007) to prove the Many-Worlds Interpretation. As, he claimed, all the victims were alive in 2015 (or, in his 2015 universe), there were no murder victims and therefore no crime. He has been called the time traveller killer by the press.
Maike works in a local art gallery but is keen on cycling. She cycles with Ralph Dabbelink, who can shoot up and down mountains on his bicycle in no time. When Sebastian went with Maike and Dabbelink, he was left way behind. Dabbelink is an anaesthetist, who works for Dr. Schlüter who is implicated in a medical scandal, as it has been suggested he has been experimenting with various drugs on patients without their knowledge.
Maike is going on a cycling holiday, while Liam goes to scout camp and Sebastian stays at home alone for three weeks, working out an abstruse problem in physics. He is really looking forward to it. Maike leaves and Sebastian takes Liam to scout camp. On the way, he has to stop at a garage to use the toilet, leaving Liam in the car. While in the toilet his mobile phone rings. He thinks that it is Maike but it is an unknown woman, who tells him that they have got Liam and the price of his return is that Sebastian must kill Dabbelink. He must not, of course, tell Maike or the police.
Sebastian spends hours agonising over how to kill Dabbelink (whom he does not like) and eventually does it. He tells nobody. Liam does not reappear, so he tells Oskar what has happened. Finally, he tells the police. They come to his house and tap his phone. He receives a phone call. It is Liam. He apologises for not phoning before but he had been away on a scout hike. Sebastian falls apart but withdraws the kidnapping complaint.
But, as the German title tells us, this book is about Schilf. Schilf is the normal German word for reed but it is a person in this book. Schilf is a senior officer, based in Stuttgart, who also helps train police officers. It is he who has made Rita Skura (skura is the Swedish for scrub which may or (most likely) may not be relevant) the police officer that she now is. He is called in to help on the various cases Freiburg is dealing with: the kidnapping, the murder of Dabbelink and the medical scandal. Schilf has a colourful history. Twenty years ago, he had what he calls a fracture (Bruch in German). Something drastic happened. Perhaps he shot an innocent man or perhaps his wife and son were killed when his car was driven off a road by a suspect. He has blotted it all out and changed dramatically.
Two key things have changed in his life recently. The first is that he has a brain tumour and, as a result, he sees things differently. Indeed, he has a certain amount of temporal displacement, which aligns him more with Sebastian and his views on time. The second happens when he is pursued by a woman who had had a career as a model in life classes and was successful at it, as she was able to sit or lie for hours without moving. Her doctor has advised her to quit or she will cause permanent damage. She now is looking for someone to look after her and she latches on Schilf. He takes her in and she cleans and cooks for him.
Schilf’s technique is decidedly unconventional. Indeed, it is a technique that may well work on the fictional world but is unlikely to do so in the real world. Nevertheless, it is he who caught the time traveller killer and it is he who will help Rita Skura to find out what happened here and, inevitably, it is not what we think and nor will his main aim be catching the killer.
There area couple of things that make this novel particularly interesting. The first is the connection between theoretical physics and the police investigation. Zeh cleverly shows that the standard police investigation, as carried by Rita Skura and her assistant Schnurpfeil, is too much based on the conventional world, while the solution must often be sought in what we might call a higher plane. The second interesting features Schilf. The book changes completely when he makes his appearance. He is original and different and it is he that brings together the physics-detection relationship.
In my review of Zeh’s earlier book Nullzeit (Decompression), I criticised her plot, saying that there were three inconsistencies. There is one on this book, as well. Sebastian receives the phone call from the kidnapper who tells him Dabbelink must go. She does not threaten Liam or, indeed, anything else, though she does tell him not to tell the police or Maike.. As a result of this, Sebastian, a man who has never even vaguely thought that he could kill someone, does, indeed, kill someone. Had I been in his position, despite the warning, I would have gone to the police at once, not least as there was no guarantee that killing Dabbelink would bring back Liam (as, indeed, happens). Most people, I feel, would have done the same. However, apart from this quibble – and, yes, I know it is a novel and not real life – I thought this a very clever and well-written book.
First published 2007 by Schöffling
First English translation 2010 Harvill Secker