When it comes to crime fiction, it's not often that you come across something totally different from anything you've read in the past. Juli Zeh's Dark Matter (US title: In Free Fall) is a philosophical thriller that isn't afraid to be both intelligent, poetic and playful. The novel revolves around the lives of four characters: two physicists and two detectives. The two physicists, Sebastian and Oskar, have been friends since university, where they were considered so brilliant that it would be only a matter of time until they both would win the Nobel Prize. Still deeply attached to one another, they have gone, regarding their work and their private lives, their separate ways. Nevertheless, they see each other on a regular basis. After a heated TV discussion featuring the two of them, Sebastian, who lives in the Black Forest, takes his son to a Scouts camp. On his way he stops at a service station, leaving his sleeping son in the car. When he returns he discovers someone has taken his son and the car. While searching the rest area, he gets a phone call telling him, if he wants his son back, he must kill a man. Sebastian has no choice but to ask for Oskar's assistance. Two detectives eventually become involved. The physically and intellectually impressive Rita, whose entire life revolves around police work, and her over-sensitive and empathetic mentor, Schilf. Now dying from a brain tumour, Schilf had been Rita's teacher, and, considering her naive view of the world, had advised her to always go against her instincts and judgement. Having heeded this advice- not quite the usual mode of operation for fictional cops- Rita is now the most successful detective on the force.
Here, as one can surmise, the focus is not so much on the crime as on character. I suppose this is a particularly European type of thriller, unafraid to tackle large issues and clashing views of the world, such as the ideal versus the materialistic, debates about multiple worlds as opposed to a unifying theory, the bending of reality, the nature of time, and the difference between detection and investigation. At the same time, Zeh's approach is such that the novel, though intellectual, never becomes too weighty or obscure. In the end it reminded me of cross between Jerome Charyn and Philp K. Dick, maybe with a bit of Jack O'Connell thrown in for good measure, but, on the other hand, unlike any of them. One thing for sure, you won't have ever come across anything quite like it before.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.