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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Der Mörder trinkt keine Milch

Johannes Mario Simmel

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Title: Der Mörder trinkt keine Milch
Author: Johannes Mario Simmel
Genre: Novel
Written: 1950
Length: 192 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Der Mörder trinkt keine Milch - Deutschland
  • Ein Kriminalroman.
  • First serialized in slightly different form in the Arbeiter Zeitung in 1949, and then published in book form in 1950
  • Der Mörder trinkt keine Milch has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B : by-the-numbers mystery, overfull with suspects behaving suspiciously, but reasonably well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The police inspector in charge of the investigation in this story, Kommissar Wagner, at one point observes:

     "Der Mörder trinkt keine Milch," sagte er leise. "Ein guter Titel für einen Kriminalroman."

     ["The murderer doesn't drink milk," he said quietly. "A good title for a mystery novel."]
       That can be debated (and I'd say: no.) As to that as title for this particular novel, the suggestion that the murderer may be lactose intolerant (or avoids drinking milk here for other reasons) is a small clue to the mystery, but the complexity of the crime(s) -- and thus also their resolution -- extends significantly beyond that. I.e. it's not nearly that simple. (On the other hand, the reason for so much milk-drinking in the novel is interesting: the story is largely set in the offices of a newspaper, with adjacent printing facilities -- and in this just-post-war time they still use lead type; doctors have advised everyone working there to drink lots of milk to counter the effects of the ambient lead exposure.)
       Der Mörder trinkt keine Milch is an (almost-)twenty-four hour novel, beginning at 5:56 AM, and concluding at 3:00 the next morning. It is a day in the life of a small Viennese newspaper, the Wiener Mittag -- a midday paper -- except that for once they are more part of the news than reporting on it.
       The novel opens with editor Walter Lang making his way to work. Some others are already there, and others arrive at this early hour as well, but there's also a drunk in the lobby who desperately wants to see the editor in chief, Thomas Heller. Lang and a colleague escort him upstairs and leave him in one of the rooms to sleep it off.
       The various journalists, editors, and typesetters go about their usual business for a while -- including discussing the huge story that's planned for the following day's edition, a scoop about a huge currency smuggling operation at a local establishment, 'At Adam and Eve's'. Some of the employees have their own issues, too: one is desperate to go on vacation or leave -- he's all worked out --, another wants (yet another) advance on his salary, while co-worker Maria wants to make her deep feelings for a preoccupied Lang clear. Meanwhile, the drunk they found in the morning goes missing -- and then a mystery woman shows up wanting to speak to Heller, followed closely by Heller's wife, Theresa. Several people see how disturbed Heller looks when the mystery woman leaves -- and moments later there's a shot, and they find Heller slumped over his desk, with his wife standing beside him, holding a revolver .....
       Heller's death looks like suicide, but there are some questions -- such as why there's a third set of fingerprints on the revolver that his wife says she picked up. And there's also the question of his motive: the newspaper is doing well, he just came into an inheritance, and he was looking forward to that huge story they were going to publish the next day ..... Obviously the mystery woman and her meeting with Heller are matters of interest -- all the more so when she reveals herself also to be a Theresa Heller, and claims also to be the dead man's wife .....
       The missing drunk, whom no one saw leaving the premises, might be able to shed some light on things, but when he's found he's in no condition to share anything -- and the papers he was carrying have gone missing. Kommissar Wagner can safely assume that one of the small handful of suspects who were present that morning is behind the happenings -- blackmail, murder (there are three corpses, by the end) -- but with each one of them not entirely forthcoming -- indeed, obviously keeping things secret -- the case proves anything but straightforward. Suspicious by nature, especially of all-too-plausible sounding explanations -- "Ich kann nichts dafür: aber ich habe nun einmal einen heiligen Schrecken vor allen glaubwürdig klingenden Geschichen ..." ('It can't be helped: I simply have a holy terror of all believable-sounding stories ...') -- Wagner takes his time sifting through the many distracting side-stories and suspicious actions by the various suspects.
       Eventually comes the grand summing-up -- and it's one of the weaknesses of the novel that it requires Wagner to basically get up and explain it all, prefacing his summary by acknowledging: "Die ganze Geschichte ist ziemlich kompliziert und begann vor vielen Jahren in Paris" ('The whole story is pretty complicted, and has its beginnings in Paris, many years ago') -- which is rather distant, in time and place, from where the otherwise rather localized in the here and now action takes place.
       Der Mörder trinkt keine Milch isn't quite a police procedural -- much of the action focuses on the various individuals, and their various issues, out of sight of the police -- and Simmel packs a bit much into it, with many of the newspaper employees having their own various reasons for not being entirely forthcoming with information that would be helpful in figuring out the case (and/or eliminating them as suspects). That so much is involved -- including the confusion about Heller's two wives (which proves even more confusing than one might have first imagined) as well as the criminal operation that the newspaper is set to expose -- also weighs the novel down some. And the personal issues -- the budding romance between Lang and Maria (complete with misunderstandings involving Lang's sister), the affair one employee is having with a married woman -- are also heaped on rather high. Much of this presumably has to do with the fact that the novel first appeared serialized in a newspaper, leading Simmel to aim for cliffhangers and new twists as he went along, step by step; presented all at once, in book-form, it can seem more than a bit forced.
       Very much in the tradition of the Golden Age English mystery novel -- a small circle of suspects; suspicious behavior and personal secrets galore (some relevant, others apparently incriminating but in fact irrelevant to the case at hand); a detective who methodically goes over the evidence before piecing it all together --, Der Mörder trinkt keine Milch is a perfectly fine but also fairly unexceptional little mystery novel.
       Simmel does already shows his sure hand with the writing here, even if the plotting is a bit haphazard, and there's some value to it as a glimpse of immediate-post-war Vienna (complete with a little help from the occupying American military forces in chasing leads/suspects down), but even if it holds up entirely adequately, it's hardly a novel that needs to be revived, republished, or sought out.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 August 2018

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Der Mörder trinkt keine Milch: Johannes Mario Simmel: Other books by Johannes Mario Simmel under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Bestselling Austrian author Johannes Mario Simmel lived 1924 to 2009

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