'Self's Murder' by Bernhard Schlink

Bernhard Schlink is best known to American readers as the author of "The Reader," the Oprah-anointed, bestselling novel whose film adaptation provided the role that won Kate Winslet an Oscar.

In Europe, the German author is equally known for a gritty series of literary detective novels featuring an aging and irascible public prosecutor-turned-detective, Gerhard Self. "Self's Murder" is the fourth and, according to the author, the last in the series, though Schlink's characteristically ambiguous ending leaves the door at least slightly open to the possibility of further adventures.

The narrative begins in flashback with the 70-something Self -- recovering from what we'll learn at the story's conclusion is a heart attack -- slipping out of the hospital room he shares with an ailing tax inspector to catch a cab, cadge a forbidden cigarette and return to an address whose importance shortly will be made clear.

Months before, Self, his girlfriend Brigitte and her son are returning from a housewarming party in a blinding snowstorm, when the retired detective spots a car that has gone off the road into a ditch. The vehicle turns out to be a Mercedes complete with chauffeur and, once Self helps the occupants onto the road, he and the passenger, a banker, exchange business cards. When Bertram Welker, the banker, sees Self's occupation, he announces he has a job for a detective and asks his rescuer to come to his office in a near- by town.

Self lets days pass, but since his own practice has been reduced to checking the validity of department store sales girls' sick day claims, and he's just had the first of his heart attacks, a change seems in order. Welker's family has owned the region's oldest private bank for more than a century, and he tells Self he's working on a history of the institution and needs help in discovering the identity of a silent partner, whose connection dates back to the 1870s. It all seems routine enough, but soon an elderly man, obviously frightened, presses a briefcase filled with money into Self's hands, then seconds later dies after driving headlong into a tree. Self also has begun to have his doubts about whether the recent death of Welker's wife really was caused by a hiking accident . . . and whether his grim Russian stepbrother really is who he says he is.

Like any good detective, Self follows the money on a journey that will take him into former East Germany and will involve money laundering, encounters with sinister former Stasi agents and, most chillingly, Russian and Chechen gangsters. No one in Welker's ambit is who they seem to be -- and justice will turn out to be as hard to tease from this tangled web as clarity.

Self -- with his irrepressible appetite for Sweet Afton cigarettes, Sambuca, beer, Italian food and good white wines -- is a deftly realized character, in large measure because Schlink has allowed him not only his demons and flaws, but also a wisdom and dogged virtue of modest (but not inconsequential) scope. It's the sort of inner realism more often associated with literary than detective fiction, but anyone familiar with "The Reader" will recall that Schlink, who is himself a former professor of constitutional law and German judge, is one of those rare writers with an ability to sympathize with his characters as individuals without in any fashion condoning their conduct.

When a young man claiming to be Self's son turns up at his door, the detective is forced to relive the painful disintegration of his marriage. He also must face the fact that his then-wife might well have born a child during an affair she had as Self was recovering from wounds suffered while fighting in the Nazi invasion of Poland. "In later years our marriage had been empty," he says. "But in those early days, when I had started at the Heidelberg public prosecutor's office and Klara was soon to follow me to Heidelberg, our marriage was young and, I thought, full of magic, promising lasting happiness. It did affect me that there might have been someone else with whom Klara had had a relationship and a child, someone who didn't even love her enough to insist she divorce me and marry him. Or did he die on the battlefield?"

Self's service as a Nazi prosecutor is a tormenting memory and, in one of the earlier Self novels, it drove him to a nervous breakdown. In this book, the guilt mordantly resurfaces when Self encounters a gang of young neo-Nazis while walking across a dark bridge in the old East Germany. Because of his age, they demand to know whether he'd ever seen Hitler and, delighted that he had, they demand that he give the call and gesture he'd used to salute the Fuehrer. Self tries to refuse, but they threaten to throw him in the canal. Finally he consents and mutters "Heil Hitler," but is tossed into the cold waters anyway for failing to raise his arm. Age and bad heart not withstanding, Self survives, but the next morning muses, "I hadn't come to any great harm. . . . [T]he side of my body that had hit the water was a single big bruise. I also had a runny nose and a slight fever. But my injury was elsewhere. I'd had a chance to make up for the wrongs I had done in the old days. And when does one ever get such a chance? But I'd done it wrong again."

"Self's Murder" is an engrossing, provocative novel, and the series deserves to be reckoned among those remarkable post-war European novels that infused the detective fiction genre with serious philosophical purpose. The example that comes most readily to mind is the great Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, whose Inspector Barlach mysteries -- particularly "The Judge and His Hangman" -- are considered existential classics. Schlink, now 65, belongs to that generation of Germans insistent on giving historical consciousness a moral dimension.

As he told an interviewer some years ago, "I don't intend to give moral answers, but I think it's still important how you pose a problem."