The gritty subject matter is juxtaposed against a prose style we tend to associate with a different kind of novel — it reads more like a coming-of-age story than a thriller. Würger’s writing is mannered; it often has an otherworldly, fable-like quality. On the first page, we learn that a couple has moved to a house in a forest “so the wife could die in peace.” She has cancer. Instead of dying, she gets pregnant. “She gave birth,” the narrator says, “to a small, scrawny infant with delicate limbs and a full head of black hair. The man and the woman planted a cherry tree behind the house and named their son Hans. That was me.”
Würger avoids most references to contemporary life — if Hans had a television growing up, we don’t know it — and there is a Gothic quality to the series of misfortunes he heaps upon his young hero: friendlessness; the deaths of both parents within six months when he is in high school; the aunt, his sole living relative, who is so cold to him as to be sociopathic (something inadequately explained by her own struggle with depression). Before she decides to enlist him in crime-solving, she simply ignores him, sending him, after his parents’ deaths, to a Jesuit boarding school, an institution replete with “towers and crenelated walls.” He has only one pleasure: boxing. He and the school’s cook spar in the basement.
The self-conscious bleakness and attempts at timelessness can seem a little forced, as if they are mostly intended to give the impression of depth and to distinguish the book from more commercial novels. Here, for example, is what Hans brought with him to boarding school: “five pairs of trousers and five shirts, underwear, socks, one of my father’s woolen jerseys, my mother’s necklace, a hat, a twig from the cherry tree” — the one his parents planted after his birth — “my brown diary with the unlined pages and the black cowhide boxing gloves.” No phone or laptop, apparently. It is simply not believable, as a depiction of a middle-class teenager.
In this context, Hans’s occasional references to something specific and contemporary not only stand out — they seem to have a force that we usually associate with more powerful or original observations. When he arrives at Cambridge, for example, he notices a lot of students take Ritalin “to cope with the pressure.” “There were,” he says, “indeed some geniuses among the students, but the majority just worked really hard.”