Ingrid Noll: The Pharmacist aka Die Apothekerin (1994) La Grande Dame of German Crime

As much as I like to savour a book, it’s wonderful, once in a while when you start something and the next time you look up the 300 pages have already been read. That’s pretty much what happened with The Pharmacist aka Die Apothekerin by Ingrid Noll. The book is currently only available in English as cheap used paperback or library copy. It has been made into a movie starring Katja Riemann and Jürgen Vogel.

Noll is something like the grande dame of German crime that’s why it’s fitting to kick off the crime week of our German Literature Month with a review of one her books. Not only does she write well, she is famous for her macabre ideas, black humour and psychologically complex characters. These are not whodunnits but explorations of the criminal mind with a twist. A little bit of Patricia Highsmith with a whole lot of very distinctly Ingrid Noll.

The story starts bizarre enough with the narrator Hella Moormann lying in a hospital bed and starting to tell her whole life to a complete stranger, her bed neighbour, the elderly and seemingly inoffensive Rosemarie Hirte. Why Hella is in hospital is not told and it strikes us as uncanny that she would start to tell the most incredible details to someone she doesn’t know.

Hella has two striking features. People constantly die around her and she always falls for the wrong man. Occasionally this is connected, sometimes it isn’t. She is a pharmacist and very well versed in potions and poisons. It seems that her latest lover was far more interested in this feature than in any other of her charms if there are any. Hella is a very unreliable narrator and distorts most things, we can only assume that she is far less attractive than she thinks.

Levin, the young man she moves in with, is studying to become a dentist. His uncle is an extremely rich man and Levin is his only heir. He has a cunning plan involving false teeth and poison but he needs Hella’s assistance.

Until the end of the book, we never really know whether Hell is as naive as she pretends. And while the story progresses we are more and more intrigued by Rosemarie who starts to get a bit too interested in Hella’s story.

The only thing we know for sure is that people keep on dying. I really enjoyed following Hella’s tale, guided by Ingrid Noll’s acerbic wit and fascinated by the incredible pairing of  striking descriptions with gross exaggerations. On top of all that this is a tale about fast cars, a big beautiful house, criminal people, accidents, pregnancies and a narrator who may or may not be innocent.

This isn’t the first Ingrid Noll novel I’ve read. There was none that I didn’t like. In Germany she is compared to Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Millar and Joan Aiken. In any case, Noll is for those who like their crime to be on the more literary side of the genre.

Do you know Ingrid Noll? Do you have favourite German crime writers?

The review is part of German Literature Month Week II – Crime