The German author Juli Zeh’s new and acclaimed novel “In Free Fall” is a quirky, intelligent story of detection involving two physicists, a police detective with just days to live and a bad joke that goes horribly awry.
"In Free Fall," by Juli Zeh. Translated from the German by Christine Lo. Doubleday, New York, 2010. 315 pages. $26.95.
The German author Juli Zeh’s new and acclaimed novel “In Free Fall” is a quirky, intelligent story of detection involving two physicists, a police detective with just days to live and a bad joke that goes horribly awry. Like a foreign movie that slowly and carefully pans over detail and characters, this book takes its time. And unlike so many American mystery novels, the writing is not spared on behalf of fast-paced plot. Here’s a thriller where you can linger over sentences.
The two brilliant and charismatic physicists, Sebastian and Oskar, bond while in school. Their unique friendship is notable to all who witness their impassioned discourse and physical ease with each other. Sebastian’s eventual marriage to a breathtaking beauty, his precocious son Liam and his divergent ideas about physics recast the friendship. They continue their relationship with weekly dinner meetings that now include Sebastian’s family. Zeh delays the mystery close to the point of frustration in order to explore the sympathies and the animosities that continuously rock the men’s friendship. She shows us how their intellectual superiority and curiosity connect them, and, conversely, how Sebastian’s family and his scientific beliefs amplify their friendship’s deep vulnerabilities.
A number of seemingly related crimes occur: A cyclist is killed in a grisly murder, several people in a hospital die untimely deaths and Liam is kidnapped. The police detective in charge of the investigations, Rita Skura, is one of several flawed and somewhat unreliable characters. She cannot trust her firm convictions. Whatever occurs to her as she investigates a crime is dead wrong. She must embrace the opposite assumption.
Zeh’s curious take on the world is delivered beautifully by the ailing Detective Schilf, charged with finding the cyclist’s killer. Schilf is operating under a death sentence, with only days left. His illness renders him unreliable though he retains his core brilliance as a detective. He makes do even as he is plagued by pain and alternate realities, which he uses to his advantage. We, despite the pending tragedy of his death, are amused by his workings and touched by his drive to put things right.
This is a novel of detection where the most but not all of the mysteries are more involved with character than “who done it?” or “how?” And giving us the murderer frees Zeh to repeatedly trip us up with clever distractions and surprising plot twists. In Zeh’s world, there can be no happy endings. Things can be set back on proper tracks, however, and conclusions can satisfy emotionally and intellectually. Tragedy and death, like laws of physics, cannot be denied.
Rae Francoeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read her blog at freefallrae.blogspot.com. Her book “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair” is now available in bookstores and online.