Inspector Anders and the Ship of Fools

by Marshall Browne

Published by St. Martin's Minotaur

272 pages, 2002


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A "Fools" Errand

Reviewed by David Honeybone


It may seem rather ironic, particularly to other Australian crime writers, that those of their band who've chosen to set their novels outside of the vast southern continent have reaped rewards. It's a calculated risk to write about a removed setting, but one that has proved successful. Barry Maitland, for instance, sets his popular Brock and Kolla detective series (The Marx Sisters, Silvermeadow, etc.) firmly in the UK. And then there is Marshall Browne and his false-legged Roman detective, Inspector Anders.

Like Anders, Browne spent many years in Europe, though as a banker, not a policeman. The world of banking no doubt provided him with many experiences, which serve him well in composing the Anders books. Browne understands the cut-and-thrust of big business and the shark-like tendencies of the characters involved.

Browne's The Wooden Leg of Inspector Anders met with critical acclaim when it was first published in 2000, winning a Ned Kelly Award for Best First Novel from the Crime Writers' Association of Australia. Earlier this year, it was also short-listed in the Mystery/Crime category of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. Those readers who enjoyed Anders' debut are in for a real treat, as the complex detective stages a return in Inspector Anders and the Ship of Fools. Browne displays his maturity as a crime writer in this sequel, while he tests his "knight in rusty armour, with a creaking leg" to the full.

The book opens with Anders seconded to a special Interpol unit, following a failed attempt on his life by the mafia. He and the bluff but suave detective Matucci are spirited away to desk-bound intelligence jobs in Lyon, France, supposedly out of harm's way.

Our unwilling hero and Matucci are assigned to investigate a horrific bombing in Frankfurt, Germany. Sixteen managing directors from Chemtex and Interdrug AG had assembled in a boardroom to discuss a merger of the two companies. Their meeting's result: huge profits for the few, redundancy for thousands. In the midst of it, though, an explosion reduces the directors to "sixteen buckets of red paint." Anders' experience leads him to suspect a number of perpetrators, but his inspection of the boardroom turned charnel house raises a perplexing possibility: Could this be the work of a splinter group from the Baader-Meinhof gang, a terrorist organization that ran riot in the 1970s?

Close. It's actually a modern-day version. Globalization -- a 21st-century malaise for many, progress for others -- is the trigger that touched off this violence by The Judgment Day Group, according to its subsequently publicized manifesto. The Frankfurt bombing was staged as a warning to other companies involved in major mergers. These terrorists ardently oppose the job losses and other economic hardships that may result from such commercial unions. As they continue their assaults, they taunt the police and Anders with quotes from a 15th-century German poem, "The Ship of Fools."

With the assassination of another company's senior director and the threat against a pending merger of two massive banks, Anders soon finds himself traveling around Europe at speed. Although physically slowed by the loss of a leg (the result of his fighting terrorists in the early 1980s), as he proves here, his wits have not been dulled. Yet even he is increasingly hampered by what he calls shell shock -- the trauma from his years of fighting the mafia. As the novel progresses, a battle-weary Anders shuttles between Lyon, Paris, Munich and Strasbourg, drawing on his diplomacy skills to soothe the raw nerves of local police and trying, unsuccessfully, to prevent further deaths.

It is in Strasbourg that the bulk of this story plays out. That French city on Germany's border is the battleground for the next company merger and the killing field for what Anders now realizes -- despite the doubts of local police -- is a single adversary. But even as danger mounts, Anders finds time in a delicate subplot for romance, as he calls on Dr. Marguerite Dauban, the Strasbourg University librarian, for help in plucking investigative clues from the text of "The Ship of Fools." He also discovers, as he closes in on his opponent, that his health is failing. Ultimately, this novel's plot becomes a race against time, Anders' sickness threatening to stop him before he can stop his quarry:

It came at him from nowhere. The room had been invaded by the overpowering stench of the river. The air was deafening with the threatening cries of the birds ... a terrible physical disorientation had gripped him. The room was heaving. Then spinning. Nausea rose in this throat. His face was instantly covered with perspiration. The ceiling was sliding up and down. He staggered to the bed, fell down. Oh God! Worse. Hellish. The bed was rotating, going to toss him off. He seized its sides with his hands. Faster, faster. The tree-trunks were telegraph poles beside a fast train. He was going to vomit. He lurched up from the bed, reeled away, crashed into a pillar, rebounded and staggered to the bathroom. He fell down before the toilet bowl. Violently ill. Again. Heaving it up. Both his arms were around the bowl anchoring him. He was holding it as tightly as he could. What in God's name? Consciousness was going.

Will Anders succeed, or will he succumb to the frailties of his own body? The answer is provided in a cathartic climax, which threatens both Anders' sanity and life.

Inspector Anders is an intriguing protagonist: a proud, cerebral introvert; the humorous romantic who fusses over the menu at an Italian restaurant; and the trained policeman who, despite his lack of mobility, does not shy away from violence. Comparisons with Michael Dibdin's series character, Aurelio Zen (And Then You Die), spring to mind. But these two men are alike only in their shared nationality. Zen is constantly fighting a corrupt bureaucracy and operates on the shadowy borders of his books, many scenes being devoted to and told through the eyes of other characters. Zen, as Dibdin freely admits, acts as the facilitator, to good effect. By contrast, Anders is present throughout. He's at the center of Browne's plot, leading the investigation and hence the narrative. And where better to place Interpol's newest recruit, with his intellectual prowess, than in the haunting lanes and squares of Strasbourg, a university city that lends a gothic quality to Anders' often painful walks and fevered pursuit of a killer:

Strasbourg was dreaming in an azure morning when Anders and Matucci came to it. A heritage city, a university town. Anders had been looking though a guidebook during the flight. He was an addict of guidebooks, the older the better. City of the Romans, of pâté de foie gras and the 'Marseillaise', of Luther, Gutenberg and the first printed Bible, of the cathedral spire (1439); historically, exchanging its nationality between Germany and France, and now permanent seat of the European Parliament. She waited pure and open-faced in the mellow sunlight, like the city's ancient seal: a virgin with out-stretched arms. He brooded on the new scene, on his notion. He'd never known much about virgins.

With Inspector Anders and the Ship of Fools, Browne cements his reputation as a leading crime writer. His man Anders is a redoubtable character, physically frail yet a cerebral titan and one who has earned his standing in the top flight of crime-fighting champions. The story here is told at an exceptional pace and its intrigue is expertly plotted, with more twists than in Strasbourg's back alleys. A counterpoint to Anders' increasingly darkening demeanor is the colorful setting of a Europe that, far from becoming one homogenized euro land mass, displays, through Browne's infinite knowledge, subtle individual qualities.

I look forward to the inspector's next outing. Browne and Anders keep getting better and better. | July 2002


David Honeybone lives in Melbourne, Australia. He is the editor of Crime Factory magazine and runs the Crime Writers' Association of Australia.