Crime novels - be they mystery, murder, suspense, thriller - require an interesting protagonist to work effectively. Indeed, sometimes the crime itself may take a backseat to the adventures and doings of the main character. Bernhard Schlink's new novel, Self's Deception, follows this route. It is Gerhard Self, the protagonist, who makes the story, not the crime, and certainly not the mystery. Self is introspective, ironic, slightly bitter but aware of himself in a world that is puzzling, historic, cultural, intellectual, mysterious, vapid, violent. Unfortunately, this reliance on character is so strong in Self's Deception that the plot, that rambling, confused mess, suffers too much. Gerhard Self is an interesting enough fellow that he did not need a fairly average thriller plot on which to hang his cap, but because Schlink has seen fit to throw him in the midst of terrorism, murder and intrigue, that is what he has to do. Character, finally, takes a backstage to plot.
Gerhard Self, once a Nazi prosecutor, is now a private investigator in his late sixties. He is calm under pressure, inward and introspective about almost everything, and seems to take more joy in the intellectual pursuits of his love than he does in his work. When he is hired to find Leo Salgar, the disappeared daughter of a powerful Bonn bureaucrat, Self instead wanders about having conversations, thinking about chess, drinking coffee and wondering about the world. But this is endearing, a wholly effective quality for a private eye to possess. The nature of his trade naturally requires lengthy periods of waiting and watching, sitting in cars drinking coffee for hours on end. Introspection is a natural 'curse' in this case, and Self indulges at every stage. Perhaps because he is interested in classical music, literature and the history of Germany post World War II, Self comes across as intelligent and charismatic. Indeed, following his thoughts often proves more entertaining than following the plot.
In true mystery style, Leo Salgar's story is not completely revealed by her father. On top of that, is the man who hired Self really her father at all? Self is paid staggering sums in quick succession to remain on the case, in envelopes that are unmarked. He is given a number that is always connected to an answering machine and proves to be in the abandoned, rented shop of someone who seems to have no relation to Salgar at all. We are given false clues, true clues, red herrings, dead ends, bullets in lounges, philosophizing, land rent advice, chess, a wedding - the list goes on. How much of all this applies to the plot? Not a great deal. How much applies to the main character? More, but still, there is a lot of superfluous information thrown at the reader. For instance one character, an aging ladies man, has decided to marry. On the day of his wedding, he is stabbed by the brother of his soon-to-be wife. Later in hospital, he reveals to Self that he finds the idea of chasing women less desirable than before. Interesting, sure. Relevant? Not at all. This little vignette has no bearing whatsoever on the main plot and comes towards the end of the novel, when the plot should be ratcheting up in intensity and suspense. It is little missteps like this which harm the novel more than help.
There are sixty-eight chapters spread over around three hundred and fifty pages. That comes to around five pages per chapter, which isn't much at all. Each chapter begins and ends a sequence of events, the result of which is that while reading, we are rushed along, racing through chapter after chapter of event, information, event, exposition, event. It is an exhaustive, unrewarding way to frame a story, because the reader is never allowed a chance to relax and enjoy the character. And, because Self is more important than the plot, we notice particularly just how much racing around to nowhere at all we are doing. On the rare occasion that the novel does slow down to allow us time with Self, it is completely enjoyable. If only Schlink had seen fit to expand, extend, enhance. Slow down, even. There are many little quirks of characters that pop up, only to disappear once the five pages of their chapter is done. Nagelsbach, the Chief Inspector friend of Self, is a hobbiest model maker, building miniature replicas of the great sculptures, and then architectural achievements, of European geniuses:
'...his mission in life, to which he was going to devote his retirement, was to build a model of the Vatican. ...What could I tell him? That art was more a matter of creation than an attempt to portray reality? That in life the goal wasn't as important as the journey?' Self uses the quirks as a way to think on matters weighty. We can only wish that the author allowed himself the luxury of slowing down to further explore these surface thoughts, to create depth in what is an interesting character.
The climax of the novel comes about rather strangely. The short chapters and rapid-fire pace are so confusing that by the end, it is unclear what is the problem, why there is a problem, and who is responsible. Self jumps in and out of jail, characters who were not a part of the plot suddenly loom large, characters who were a large part of the plot disappear. There doesn't seem to be a thread on which to hang the plot. The dénouement, similarly, is confusing and too short.
Schlink has wrapped a great character around a thriller without a plot. He should have either focused more upon Gerhard Self and less upon murders, terrorism and suspense, or made Self less interesting and increased the thriller aspect. As it stands, we are left with a novel that does two things moderately well, but nothing excellently. Confusions, awkward jumping, horrible pacing, poor plotting and a wonderful character are the hallmarks of this game.