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21 july 2018

Kommissar Kluftinger, despite his sqeamishnesses and neuroses, is at times one of the most phlegmatic detectives in the history of the police procedural. In Volker Klüpfer and Michael Kobr's second novel, Erntedank, our hero is faced with a ritual murder that would make Kurt Wallander cry into his pillow: a mild-mannered travel agent has his throat slashed and then carefully moved to an eerie country site and posed with a dead crow on his chest. Kluftinger, meanwhile, is most concerned about the broken pipes in his house that have forced him temporarily to take shelter with his closest non-friends the Langhammers, enduring their new-agey breakfasts and their Trivial Pursuit tournaments.

And so it goes: Kluftinger finding a nearly-decapitated mostly-decayed corpse of a back-alley abortionist; Kluftinger getting pulled over by his own cops for driving his car overloaded with homemade apple juice. Kluftinger facing down a murderous watchdog; Kluftinger embarrassed to go naked into a sauna. You have to commend this guy for not taking his job home with him, at any rate.

Klüpfer and Kobr have made a considerable success out of their fussy middle-aged sleuth. From modest beginnings in Bavaria, Kluftinger has become a nationwide success in Germany: their tenth novel, called simply Kluftinger, is in wide release there this summer, and there is a German TV series that has turned some of the books into episodes. More than any other series I can think of, Klüpfer & Kobr's features a hero that the average clueless middle-aged man can relate to, and as a member of that tribe I appreciate the books.

The false notes in Erntedank are perhaps those of gender and sexuality. It's 2004 in Bavaria, and the entire detective force is still men, and they are sophomoric bros at that. Not Kluftinger himself – he is a wife-made man without prejudices, deeply appreciate of his talented spouse Erika – but somehow he's working in a very male milieu with homophobic dolts who have adolescent crushes on secretary Sandy Henske. In turn, Sandy, though as smart as any of Kluftinger's other assistants, mainly brings coffee and baked goods, and has the plot function in Erntedank of vouching for the heterosexuality of the effeminate district attorney Möbius, the target of the lads' jokes. I wonder if this element of the Kluftinger series has changed in the past 10-15 years; I would imagine it had to.

The mystery itself? There aren't many suspects, and you will tip to the killer at least as fast as Kluftinger does. But there are enough twists to keep the story interesting. I say "you," but this assumes you read German ‐ or Czech or Japanese, the only languages that Erntedank has been translated into. I don't think the series delivers enough jolts to become an international bestseller, though perhaps it just hasn't found its translator or its marketer yet.

Klüpfer, Volker, and Michael Kobr. Erntedank. 2004. München: Piper, 2007.