Book Review: Night Driver

From Wikipedia: Fritz Haarmann (1879 – 1925) was a German serial killer known as the Butcher of Hanover, the Vampire of Hanover and the Wolf-Man, who committed the sexual assault, murder, mutilation and dismemberment of a minimum of 24 boys and young men. Described by the judge at his trial as being “forever degraded as a citizen”, Haarmann was found guilty of 24 of the 27 murders for which he was tried and sentenced to death. A known homosexual and police informant, his preferred murder method was biting into or through his victims’ throats.

Marcelle Perks has taken Haarmann’s story and reimagined it in a contemporary setting. Her serial killer is called Lars, a lorry driver who seeks the intense sexual thrill he gains from murdering young men picked up on his travels. Lars and his lover, Hans, co-own a nightclub that offers clients drugs and the services of prostitutes. Hans cleans up after Lars, making money from the bodies disposed of. Hans also enjoys the services of the women they employ, his handsome good looks and attentions leading each to believe he cares for them.

Into this murky environment enters Fran, an English woman living in Hanover who is eight months pregnant. She met her husband, Kurt, on a business trip to the Cayman Islands where he was working as an engineer. At the time Fran had a well paid job and a house in London. She was drawn to Kurt by his old-fashioned, movie star good looks, his charm, attentiveness and dry humour. When Fran lost her job she sold her house and moved to be with Kurt. They married and returned to his native Germany, to a suburb where he expected Fran to keep house. Since she fell pregnant Kurt has lost interest in his wife. Alone and frustrated by the limits on integration imposed by the language barrier, Fran is determined to learn to drive that she may regain a little independence. Despite daily lessons she is struggling to master the skills required.

Lars in his lorry comes across Fran on one of her lessons, hassling her slow progress until she loses control. Fran’s instructor reports him to the police but they take no action. In her current state there is a risk to the unborn child leading to leniency from the examiner on her driving test. Shaken by events, Fran has no confidence behind the wheel. Determined to overcome her fear she decides to take Kurt’s car without telling him and practice while he sleeps and the roads are quiet.

On her first night drive Fran meets a young Polish man, Tomek, who is trying to track down his sister, Anna. He is kind to the lonely woman and she is attracted to him. She decides to help in his quest as a reason for them to meet again.

Fran and Tomek visit Dorcas, a prostitute and friend of Anna’s. Both women work for Hans. When Tomek goes missing Fran grows concerned and asks for Dorcas’s help. Neither women are yet aware that the focus of the nightclub’s criminal activity has moved to a more lucrative use of the bodies they dispose of. Their dogged interest in the missing siblings makes them a liability that Hans and Lars come to realise they must deal with.

The structure of the story is episodic as in TV dramas with short chapters divided into scenes shown from key characters’ points of view. The narration is clipped in style which suits the typically British portrayal of the German language and efficient attitude. This idiosyncratic presentation was easier to read in short spurts than one sitting.

Descriptions are vivid and often bloody. Sex is perfunctory. I found Fran’s limited concern for her unborn child difficult to empathise with but her isolation in the face of Kurt’s lack of interest for her well-being was well portrayed. The men at the nightclub are chillingly authentic, their treatment of women as property to be used and then discarded believable. The sociopathic tendencies of the killers was unsettling but fitted well in explaining their warped reasoning.

This is a disturbing tale but one that maintained engagement. That it is inspired by true events gives it an added edge.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane.

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