Hotel Cartagena, by Simone Buchholz – book review

Honesty is the best policy. Or if not honesty, authenticity. If Chastity Riley’s friends had stuck to beer rather than ‘untrustworthy’ cocktails, she wouldn’t have stabbed herself with the pineapple from a pina colada, nor would she have developed sepsis. Her thumb balloons and her zip-filled, crackling narrative becomes more and more haphazard. Simone Buchholz is trying to tell us something.

cover of Hotel Cartagena

Buchholz is, for me, one of the most interesting writers in crime fiction. She has a smouldering anger at injustice, which she expresses through the voice of Riley. Both Beton Rouge and Mexico Street, which we’ve previously featured, have seen Riley, a public prosecutor, giving voice to – if not the voiceless, then at least the disaffected. This time round, Riley and her colleagues are sitting in a bar, celebrating a birthday when they’re caught up in a hostage situation. In these circumstances it’s clear who are the good guys and the bad guys, right? Except that Riley quite fancies the hostage ringleader. And it’s interesting that she should become more confused and less sure of herself as the hours tick by. We too are confused: not about what’s happening – in fact a parallel narrative has given us the back story so we’re a jump ahead of Riley, but because Buchholz – and Riley – are blurring the boundaries.

We do have the gist about why these people are there. This is one of a series of drugland reckonings. Some have been random, efficient or brutal. All of them have involved people who were not directly involved caught in the blast. This one is, how shall we say, more eclectic. Not everyone involved has been involved in organised crime, but they have each suffered a betrayal. They want revenge. They, and we, get a bit carried away as the hostage takers force-feed a plutocrat with fatty sausages.

When it comes down to it, the battle is between he who chose crime as a short-term escape, outgrew it but couldn’t run away, and he who chose it having no need to. The respectable criminal enjoys privilege and power; the escaper is beyond redemption: that’s how it works. Buchholz is in contrast extremely interested in redemption. She doesn’t detail, mind, how both these characters benefited on the backs of the exploited, except perhaps though the appearance of escort girls throughout the supply chain. No one wins but it’s society’s double standard that Buchholz is calling out. There’s a real anger in these pages, but it’s masked behind some exquisite prose – acidic, tight, playful prose so it’s only at the end that we pause and realise what we’ve experienced.

At first, this is a bit of a slow read. The writing is so fine, so exact, that I re-read some passages two or three times just to savour them. (A shout out to the translator Rachel Ward for the fab job.) But the plot moves us along and my need to know what happened next outweighs everything (except perhaps the sausages). The final hundred pages fly by.

Another fantastic instalment of Schwarz Deutsch. As for Chastity Riley, right now, she’ll be on the beers I assume. Let’s be honest.

Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy, and to Anne Cater for the blog tour invitation.

Hotel Cartagena blog tour poster

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