Simone Buchholz – Hotel Cartagena (Blog Tour)
Published by Orenda Books, paperback £8.99. Translated by Rachel Ward. I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.
First, the official blurb: Twenty floors above the shimmering lights of the Hamburg docks, public prosecutor Chastity Riley is celebrating a birthday with friends in a hotel bar when twelve heavily armed men pull out guns, and take everyone hostage. Among the hostages is Konrad Hoogsmart, the hotel owner, who is being targeted by a young man whose life – and family – have been destroyed by Hoogsmart’s actions. With the police looking on from outside – their colleagues’ lives at stake – and Chastity on the inside, increasingly ill from an unexpected case of sepsis, the stage is set for a dramatic confrontation … and a devastating outcome for the team … all live streamed in a terrifying bid for revenge. Crackling with energy and populated by a cast of unforgettable characters, Hotel Cartagena is a searing, stunning thriller that will leave you breathless.
I’ve reviewed a fair few Orenda novels on here, and read a fair few more that I haven’t written about. But despite that, and despite the urgings of several people whose opinions I value, and despite seeing Simone Buchholz at several events, where she is always interesting, I’ve somehow never opened one of her novels. Allow me to be the first person to slap me…
The first thing that strikes me about Hotel Cartagena is Buchholz’s writing style – sharp, edgy, taut. Very nearly classic hard-boiled, but with a modern twist. Not a word wasted, not an opportunity for forward momentum missed. (Huge credit to translator Rachel Ward for her handling of this.) Most writers grab you with plot or perhaps the main character in the first pages; this style is a character all in itself, it’s riveting to read. It eases slightly as we get further into the novel, but it’s crisp and crackling all the way through to the end.
The opening chapters are brief and explosive: Stepanovic, a cop, is avoiding a birthday party in a fancy hotel bar where feelings could get complicated by taking a diversion. A group of men in a warehouse go through their plan one last time: guns, gelignite and their gear all set. Then we switch to first person as public prosecutor Chastity Riley joins the birthday party in the fancy hotel bar. As she looks around the group of cops, former readers are reminded of and new readers briefly introduced to who is who and what is what – it’s very deftly done and left me curious for the full stories. Then as Chastity gouges her hand on an extravagant piece of pineapple in someone else’s cocktail, shots are fired. To be precise: “The first shots are fired.” So, there are gunshots now, and gunshots to come. I don’t think I could be any more alert, or any more hooked. Yikes.
But turn the page and we’ve skipped back a couple of decades to be with a chap called Henning, who is escaping his dreary life in Hamburg on a ship to Cartagena, where life is anything but dreary and where he can make a serious amount of money if he deals in certain ways with certain people.
Back in the hotel, the dozen armed men have taken the bar clientele and a handful of staff hostage. Do they realise the birthday party is in reality a group of cops, who are never entirely off duty even at parties, and who are definitely not off duty when they are taken hostage? There’s serious tension here.
We slip between the bar tonight and several years looking back at Henning’s life – in Cartagena, Hamburg, and Venezuela – and gradually a picture builds, and eventually that picture comes into focus. Each period, then and now, moves at a different pace, but the tension is slowly ratcheted up in both so there is no respite – I had to put the book down a few times to take a breath, then hastily picked it up again as I had to know what happened next.
Stepanovic, who should be back in the police station incident centre, instead gets himself assigned to join the negotiating team when they arrive at the hotel. He’s come to realise what matters, which is a powerful driving force. Up in the bar, the atmosphere is becoming more claustrophobic by the moment. Meanwhile, Chastity’s cut thumb is rapidly turning septic, sparking peculiar hallucinations and pages of not-quite-poetry. It’s a very unsettling device, though it has its own beauty and speaks of a character who does not see things as others do.
Finally, then and now connect, the target is revealed and the why is laid out in full: “And now let’s settle the score.” How can it end anything other than badly for these people? They are after vengeance, but what of all those who suffered because of what they did? Buchholz assumes we have the smarts to make that connection without it being pointed out, and also the smarts to realise that sometimes things don’t end how we thought they would or should.
There’s a crime in the here and now and a string of crimes in the past. There are teams of cops all over the place. And yet Hotel Cartagena is far from being a straightforward thriller or police procedural. It’s about people getting in above their heads and not realising until it’s too late that they’re trapped. It’s about consequences of bad decisions and well-intentioned actions, and about the fact that sometimes things aren’t neatly tied up how we’d like them to be. And it’s about the complexities of relationships and emotions, and how they become crystal clear when you view them in a different light, from a different angle. There is fallout to come from these impacts, I am sure of it.
There is so much to enjoy here, but I must warn you: Do not start reading this novel at bedtime unless you can have an undisturbed lie-in the next morning, because you are going to want to swallow it down greedily all in one sitting, no question. This might be my first Chastity Riley novel, but it’s not going to be my last.
Simone Buchholz was born in Hanau in 1972. At university, she studied Philosophy and Literature, worked as a waitress and a columnist, and trained to be a journalist at the prestigious Henri-Nannen-School in Hamburg. In 2016, Simone Buchholz was awarded the Crime Cologne Award as well as runner-up in the German Crime Fiction Prize for Blue Night, which was number one on the KrimiZEIT Best of Crime List for months. She lives in Sankt Pauli, in the heart of Hamburg, with her husband and son.