The inside of the dust jacket of In Free Fall, contains a photograph of the author staring back at the reader through piercing, ice blue eyes. Juli Zeh's stance in the photo is challenging, almost confrontational. It suggests the intellectual equivalent of the old football hooligan's chanted challenge. "Come and have a go if you think you're smart enough."
The photograph is perfect for a challenging novel. Was I smart enough for a novel focusing on a mystery centred around the relationship between two quantum physicists, one in which nothing is ever quite as it seems? Just about. I think I was in control of the narrative about 85% of the time...
But the freshness of Juli Zeh's voice and the refusal of In Free Fall - published elsewhere in the English-speaking world under the title Dark Matter - is the charm and power of a book that is unconventional.
Sebastian and Oskar are physicists - the former teaching in university in Germany and settled into domestic life with wife and son, the latter trying to uncover the secrets of the universe in Geneva. More-than-friends in earlier days, the relationship between the two is strained and increasingly abrasive. Oskar believes Sebastian has sold out on his true calling and is essentially wasting his talents when he could be working with his old friend on joining the list of immortal physicists.
Sebastian, who carries his genius heavily, has his equilbirum disturbed by a monthly dinner with Oskar and his family, and is in a troubled state by the time he drives his son Liam to scout camp. During the journey a catastrophic event takes place that ruptures the lives of all the characters.
Investigating the event are Schilf, a veteran detective and his former protege Rita Skura - described in one review as being Valkyrie-like, and I really cannot better that. In a story that delves deeply into the tension of relationships - love, jealousy, claustrophobia, suspicion - the dynamic between Skura and Schilf also drives the story, and in the second half the dying Schilf becomes the beating and emotional heart of the book, risking all to deliver closure to the case - and with it some of the outstanding issues i his life - before the tumour in his brain closes him.
In Free Fall is less of a mystery novel than a philosophical and psychological exercise, probing gently at the hazy line between reality and perception; the nature of time; personal ethics, motivation and ambition and its collision with public morality and the rule of law.
And murder - and in particular the clever construction Zeh puts together for this novel - is the perfect prism through which to view ever-shifting lines.
In Free Fall is not your average crime novel but it works very well as a mystery story, with the philosophical, physical and moral fault lines of the characters adding colossal emotional impact to the story. Zeh is regarded as a shining new star of German literature and on this evidence it is a reputation well-deserved and one that is far too bright and hot to be restricted by national boundaries.