If you’re looking for a short but satisfying murder mystery to dive into for an hour or so, you could do a lot worse than JJ Toner’s Zugzwang, a short story set in Germany in the early 1930s.
Kommissar Saxon, a police detective in Munich, has recently become a father. Stressed and underslept, the last thing he needs is a complex murder case to solve, but that’s exactly what he’s tasked with by his unforgiving boss. A woman has just been murdered, and it bears all the gruesome hallmarks of another murder just weeks earlier. As Saxon and his assistant, Glasser, start to make progress with their enquiries, the Schutzstaffel (SS) begin to interfere with their investigation, suggesting that there is far more to this case than meets the eye.
For a book of just around 50 pages, the characters are well drawn and you feel for Saxon, a young man of morals in a brutal and corrupt world. The story unfolds at a steady pace as Toner eschews drawn-out scenes in favour of economic but effective (and sometimes darkly humorous) descriptions. When the unusually bony Glasser smiles at Saxon in one scene, Toner writes, ‘he grinned like a skull’, and when Saxon is expecting the phone to ring towards the end of the book, it remains ‘like a silent brooding hen on his desk, ready to lay an egg at any moment.’
Another strength of Zugzwang is its backdrop: what could be a more sinister setting for a murder mystery than Nazi Germany? Toner weaves real events of the time, such as the suspicious death of Hitler’s niece, Geli Raubal, into the plot – indeed, Hitler himself even figures in the story – and as Toner clearly knows his German history, these elements make the book all the more believable and fascinating.
Like most good short stories, Zugzwang leaves you wanting more. As such, it’s a perfect introduction to JJ Toner and I look forward to reviewing one of his full-length books in the near future.