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  • Reviews for The Stronger Sex by Hans Werner Kettenbach
  • Hans Werner Kettenbach |  Review |  The Stronger Sex
Reviews for The Stronger Sex by Hans Werner Kettenbach
'The German novel, The Stronger Sex by Hans Werner Kettenbach is ostensibly about a lawsuit-a very grubby lawsuit, but the story is really about the tangled relationships between the people involved in the case. Lawyer Alexander Zabel, in his late twenties, is rather surprised to find himself pressured into representing the elderly, ailing German industrialist, Herbert Klofft in a case involving his former employee, 34-year-old Katharina Fuchs. Katharina, an engineer who has worked in Klofft's company, Klofft's Valves, for eleven years was fired after requesting sick leave. According to Klofft, Katharina's work had been slipping lately:
"She had repeatedly been late for work, he said, she had taken to leaving her desk for an hour or two in the middle of the day, or went home before the office closed at five. In general she had made it obvious, he claimed, that in contrast to the last ten years she was no longer particularly interested in her job, and considered the work more of a tedious necessity. "
Katharina was warned about her "conduct. " Then came a request for a week off for "private reasons, " and when pressed for an explanation she refused to elaborate. The time off was denied but Katharina took the week off anyway, and according to Klofft, who went to the extraordinary lengths of hiring a private detective to check on her whereabouts, she spent the week in a luxury Swiss spa with her lover. Even though she presented adequate medical documentation upon her return, Katharina was fired. Now there is a hearing scheduled at an employment tribunal, and Zabel will represent the Klofft company against Katharina Fuchs.
Once Zabel takes the case, the circumstances of what should be a fairly straight forward matter immediately become murky. Katharina was Klofft's long-time mistress for ten years, but their relationship palled due to a combination of circumstances. Zabel asks himself if Katharina was fired by Klofft out of jealousy and spite, and as he pieces together evidence for the employment tribunal, he peels away layers of the Kloffts' unhappy marriage. Although Klofft is Zabel's client, Klofft's wife, an attractive artist named Cilly, becomes a little too involved in the case, and just what Cilly wants from Zabel isn't clear. When she drops vital information Zabel's way, he's presented with a dilemma: he can't confide aspects of the case without betraying client confidentiality, and yet Cilly provides him with information that will help prepare for the hearing. Why does Cilly want to gain Zabel's trust? Is she merely feeling pity for a young lawyer who is forced to deal with irascible, autocratic, adulterous husband, or is she, in effect, working against her husband's desire to squash Katharina?
As the novel continues, an overwhelmed Zabel finds himself drawn into the Kloffts' unhappy world. Although he's initially repulsed by Klofft-a man whose fossilized attitudes towards women are offensive and repugnant-gradually the two men form a tentative relationship which unfolds over details regarding the impending hearing and also through a series of chess games. While the male characters are the novel's power brokers, it's the women who seem to remain recalcitrant, mysterious and elusive as they move just beneath the surface of the events that take place. Cilly certainly shakes up Zabel's self-assurance, but there's another indecipherable woman in the novel: Katharina. Although she's the catalyst for the novel's action, she's seen only from a distance through the eyes of other people, and her motives are difficult to peg. If, by her actions, she set out to drive Klofft to jealous rage, then she succeeded, but perhaps Katharina was just trying to finally escape Klofft's yoke and suffocating, unwelcome attentions.
For American readers, the novel raises some cultural issues. While Zabel expects a lawsuit to follow the employment tribunal hearing, the phrase "sexual harassment " was absent from the text, and written by an American, this would be an entirely different novel. The Stronger Sex is an exploration of moral choices and moral consequences, and while the males in the novel may think that they have the power that grants them the upper hand, the very elusiveness of the book's female characters accords them a different kind of strength, and that issue is at the heart of the novel. (Translated by Anthea Bell.)' - MostlyFiction
'Dying wheelchair bound septuagenarian industrialist Herbert Klofft fired his thirtyish assistant Katharina Fuchs though they had an affair for most of the eleven years she worked for him. Outraged because the engineer felt she was extremely loyal to the ruthless elderly Klofft, Fuchs sues for wrongful dismissal.Seventy-seven years old Dr. Hockeppel orders employee Dr. Alexander Zabel to defend Klofft. The twenty nine years old attorney quickly realizes the case is a loser as his client is infamous as much for being a philander as he is for his unethical business practices. Worse Zabel is embarrassed that he is attracted to Klofft's elderly wife Cilly. His sexual desire makes him better understand his client as he sees similarities between them and between him and his boss, but the case remains hopeless.This is an intriguing psychological thriller that is totally character driven by the three men in Frau Kloftt's life as she is a seemingly benign femme fatale. The story line is leisurely paced to enable the audience to feel they are in Germany whether riding the car driven by Karl or smelling Cilly's perfume. Not for everyone as the action is limited, The Stronger Sex is a deep look at relationships that cross the acceptable ethical barriers.' - MBR II
'When a time limit looms over one's head, everything becomes a rush. "The Stronger Sex" tells the story of attorney Alexander Zabel and his intriguing case of a dying near-octogenarian and his middle-aged mistress. Author Hans Werner Kettenbach explores a unique psychology of age, sexuality, and where our sympathies lie. Unique and riveting reading, "The Stronger Sex" is a fine read, not to be missed.' - MBR Bookwatch
'Kettenbach provides answers that are either darkly humorous or melancholically tragic, depending on how black the reader's heart proves to be.'

- Booklist
'Kettenbach (David's Revenge) takes a deep, and sometimes disturbing, look at the karmic consequences of a lifetime of depravity in this fusion of psychological suspense and crime fiction. Herbert Klofft an aging and gravely ill industrialist, stands accused of wrongfully dismissing a female employee, Katharina Fuchs, with whom he'd been having an affair for more than a decade. The lawyer defending Klofft, 29-year-old Alexander Zabel, soon gets entangled in his own ethical quagmire as he finds himself sexually attracted to Klofft's elderly but alluring wife, Cilly. But as Zabel finds out more about his ill-tempered client, a self-professed adulterer and ruthless businessman, he begins to see Klofft-and himself- in a different existential light. While the legal issue is far from intriguing and the pacing not exactly breakneck, Kettenbach's highly contemplative prose makes this cerebral and melancholic exploration into morality and mortality a powerful and haunting read.' - Publishers Weekly
'After reading the various comments on the back cover, I was looking forward to reading this book as I love a story with a psychological element. Young Alex is driven to the home of his latest client; a man called Klofft. The reader soon finds out that Klofft has plenty of baggage, as well as plenty of money. He's elderly and very ill and mobility is also an issue for him. So, while he may have set out to impress others with his large home and beautiful things, sadly he seems no longer to be able to enjoy life. His illness confines him to just a couple of rooms. It's apparent that Alex is rather taken with his wife, Cilly Klofft, who is still rather beautiful - for her age. The reader assumes she's in her late sixties or early seventies. But what is it they say about age being only a number for some of us? And age plays a big part, a very big part, in this novel. Kettenbach sets a tense, almost claustrophobic feel throughout, which I liked. I got the sense that Alex felt out of his depth at times having to put delicate questions to a moneyed couple. I could almost feel him squirm as he tries to extract delicate, but vital information from a cantankerous and awkward elderly man. Klofft's behaviour leaves him with few friends and very little social contact. And what there is, well, he has to pay for in terms of nursing care and a friendly word or two thrown in.
But as the story develops, Alex starts to view the crusty, old Klofft in a different light. What is it they say about someone's bark being worse than their bite? Could it apply here? The social - and legal boundaries come into play in this novel. They also tend to shift now and again. Is this good? And more importantly, is it ethical? It looks as if the fragrant Cilly is toying with Alex's feelings. But would a young, virile, successful man already in a physical relationship with a woman his own age, even give an elderly woman past her prime a second glance? It may surprise you. It certainly surprised me. I seem to remember reading somewhere lately that 75 is the new 40 or maybe it was 50, but anyway, I felt a little uncomfortable with the whole age agenda. And also with the Cilly/Alex situation. But perhaps this is Kettenbach's whole point. And if so, then it's a good one to get us all thinking. The writing is fluid, conversational and very easy to get involved in right from the beginning. We soon come to appreciate that this legal case is so flawed that you could drive the proverbial coach and horses through it. The tension increases for all the key players as the day in court looms. We're given a smattering of legal procedure and jargon just to keep us nicely in the loop. Overall, I found this novel engaging with a good storyline and the male-female roles with a nice twist. Recommended.'
- Bookbag
'The Stronger Sex, newly published in English translation (done by Anthea Bell) by crime fiction publisher Bitter Lemon Press, isn't really a crime novel, or even a thriller, despite including a private detective, a race track, a mysterious older woman and a young lover, a young lawyer thrust into a difficult case without knowing the consequences, and so on. But the case deals with an accusation that an employer has dismissed a worker improperly: a woman working for a despotic entrepreneur asks for time off, and when refused, she takes sick leave. When the employer fires her without notice, she sues under German workers' rights laws and the case is set to come before a special employment tribunal.

Young attorney Alexander Zabel is assigned to defend the employer, Herbert Klofft, in the case by his boss, who is a friend of Klofft's. Most of the novel is Zabel's first-person puzzlement over how to proceed in the case, mixed with his on-again-off-again relationship with an attractive art critic, his fascination with the sexy-but-seventy Cilly Klofft, the defendant's wife, and his alternating sympathy and repulsion with regard to the difficult but very ill Kofft.

The blurbs accompanying the book suggest a similarity to Patricia Highsmith, which is indeed a valid comment-but it's to Highsmith's tightly wound but quieter novels, rather than the Ripley books. For me, the relationship of Zabel and Cilly was the most interesting element in what is a noir story but one whose violence is for the most part emotional and psychological rather than physical or blatant.

In fact, The Stronger Sex reminds me, in retrospect, of a short story rather than a novel, a very long story (342 pages, but more of a meditation centering on a minor incident rather than working with a bigger subject or a more complex plot. Of the three Bitter Lemon books by Kettenbach, David's Story and Black Ice, I found The Stronger Sex to be the most interesting and the most readable, though the furthest of the three from any conventional aspects of crime fiction. In some ways it reminds me o the recent novels by Peter Temple (Truth in particular), though it is much further from the rules and structures of the detective story or mystery novel than Temple's books-it's the concentration on character and situation and voice that I was reminded of in reading Kettenbach.

So: It's a bit of Temple, a bit of Hollywood (or even London Boulevard), a bit of Highsmith, and a bit of mainstream fiction. I recommend it if you're in the mood for something quite different. '
- International Noir Fiction
'The Stronger Sex is narrated by the young Dr. Alex Zabel, a lawyer saddled by his boss with the difficult task of defending an incorrigible elderly womanizer. He is immediately in over his head. The legal situation is thorny enough: Herr Klofft has fired his former mistress, an accomplished engineer, for taking sick time, and she has protested before the employment tribunal. Zabel's real challenge, however, is in human relations: he has to deal with Herr Klofft's ornery moods, ever-looming mortality and off-color humor; the surprisingly sexy and seductive Frau Klofft; and Zabel's own prickly girlfriend. The plot is quiet and unhurried, proceeding sedately toward a resolution that is less important than the journey, and Anthea Bell translates from the German with great skill.This novel contemplates old age, sensuality and the relationship between the two. The advances (and retreats) between Zabel and Frau Klofft feel deathly serious in their implications. The young attorney is deeply embarrassed by Herr Klofft's vulgarity, as well as by his own attraction to the elderly Frau. He reacts almost as an adolescent to her worldly charms, struggling to fit the Kloffts' eccentricities into his conservative world.While the events that move the action in this book are muted, the layered, potentially uncomfortable questions resonate. Kettenbach has succeeded in writing a novel that demands reflection. It's not a psychological thriller, but a psychological study with a legal background, filled with black humor to accompany Zabel's slightly bizarre relationships. This meditative novel is mildly disturbing but massively thought-provoking.' - Shelf Awareness
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  • Hans Werner KettenbachReviewThe Stronger Sex