Heinrich Böll, Billiards at Half Past Nine (Signet, 1962)
[originally posted 14Jan2002]
Heinrich Böll was a brilliant mystery writer. Moreover, he was capable of writing mysteries unlike anything seen before, mysteries that turned the genre on its head. He was also capable of expanding the mystery genre so that it not only bordered on, but crossed over into, literary fiction. Unfortunately, at one point Boll allowed the mystery to slide into the background and started to concentrate on the literary side of things. This leads to the inevitable question for the reader: what does a mystery novel look like when the mystery is absent, or at least so far in the background as to be unnoticeable for most of the novel?
Billiards at Half Past Nine is your answer. While there are elements of mystery within the novel, the focus is less on what’s going on around the characters than the characters themselves. This is not, in itself, a bad thing; the characters upon whom the focus rests, all of whom are members of the Faehmel dynasty of architects, are interesting enough, and it would take conscious effort to make the first half of twentieth-century German history boring in any way. We are shown that period of time through the eyes of various members of the Faehmel family in a series of recollections leading up to Heinrich Faehmel’s eightieth birthday party in 1958. And were that the basis of the novel, it would have been a good, solid piece of literature; ultimately forgettable, but good.
Böll felt the need to add something else to it, and it is there that the mystery comes into play. In the opening scenes, Heinrich’s son Robert, the present scion of the Faehmel dynasty, tells his maid that, while he is playing Billiards at a local hotel, he is only to be disturbed by certain people. Most of them are family, or other members of his business; there is one name, though, that stands out, because no one knows who this Schrella character is, or why Robert Faehmel considers him on a plane of import with the others. This part of the book is where it is lacking; one gets the feeling that Böll felt it necessary to impart complications into a novel that doesn’t require them.
While it’s a worthwhile read within the context of Böll’s complete works, it’s not a place for a novice to begin an exploration of one of Germany’s finest novelists. The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum and The Train Was on Time are much better jumping-off points. ** ½