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Der See.

Gerhard Roth is a masterful storyteller. In Der See (The Lake) he returns to the detective novel, a genre he has employed with great success in the past. Indeed, several early works were written much in the "American" style of Raymond Chandler, with the character of detective Philip Marlowe playing a leading and influential role. But Roth's novels are much more than just a traditional sleuth unraveling the mystery and revealing the perpetrator.

In Der See Roth's protagonist Paul Eck receives a letter from his father, inviting him for a visit to his home near the Neusiedler-See in Austria's Burgenland. Eck, who is quite reluctant to visit because he has had no contact with his father since his parents divorced, is currently employed as a traveling representative for a pharmaceutical firm. Upon his arrival in the Neusiedler-See region, he learns that his father has mysteriously disappeared, possibly as a result of a boating accident. The crux of the story is Eck's effort to learn where and how his father lost his life and who might be responsible, if indeed his father has been murdered.

Like all good detective novels, the story has its share of details which makes revealing the facts and truth most complex. Paul Eck's father was too good a sailor to make a tactical error, yet neither he nor his sailboat can be located in the shallow lake. He was the owner of a nearby hunting and fishing shop, and at one point of the story it is suspected that he was killed as a result of a munitions deal he had with some warring factions in the former Yugoslavia. The father's new wife and their son are also reasonable suspects, especially since they have fled the scene of the crime.

Although the reader knows that Paul Eck is innocent, he too becomes a not unreasonable suspect early in the story. He seems always to appear at the wrong place at the wrong time. He arrives precisely on the day of the crime. He buys a handgun using a false identity. He is addicted to numerous drugs, which he buys using prescription slips he has stolen from the various doctors he has visited as a part of his job.

There is a cadre of the traditional sleuths: inspectors, commissioners, detectives of all sorts. There is even one character who comes directly from one of the old, popular detective stories: for a long time he is the nameless gumshoe in a blue Toyota who trails Eck everywhere and speaks a language now normally associated only with the old-fashioned private eye. And, of course, there are numerous characters who turn out to have nothing to do with the murder or the investigation, like the young Polish woman from Warsaw who spends a few hours with Eck and disappears just as mysteriously as she had appeared. As in all good detective stories, however, the reader never knows which clues will be important and which are merely a momentary foil or ruse.

As is the case with all of Roth's novels, the interested reader is invited to pursue the plot beyond its surface level to numerous, more complex dimensions. What, for example, is the significance of the reference to the biblical story of the blind man in the book of Tobit? Or the continued appearance of the silverfish, those nonmetamorphosed, aberrant insects that dominate the house trailer in which Eck lives? Or that small circular box which resembles a pyx that traditionally held a consecrated wafer but now may accommodate a small supply of LSD? These and a host of other questions that concern and interest contemporary readers make Der See a fascinating, suspenseful, and significant novel.

Thomas H. Falk Michigan State University
COPYRIGHT 1996 University of Oklahoma
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Author:Falk, Thomas H.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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