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  • Reviews for The Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr
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Reviews for The Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr

'Petra Hammesfahr's The Sinner demonstrates why she is one of Germany's bestselling writers of crime and psychological thrillers. It's grim, delves deep into the human psyche, and keeps you gripped.
Cora Bender goes to a lake for a picnic with her husband and son. She intends to drown herself but instead, in a sudden stabbing frenzy, she kills a man near by. She calmly admits to the murder, telling the police that she has no idea who her victim was, and refusing to offer any explanation.
Police Commissioner Rudolf Grovian determines to find out more. Is she insane? Was the dead man really a complete stranger? Under questioning, she reveals more about herself and her motives, then recants her story, or the Commissioner discovers she has been lying. Much of the novel (translated by John Brownjohn) consists of Grovian's interrogation, interspersed with Cora's own unreliable memories. Gradually the truth emerges - a disturbed childhood, a home dominated by a fanatically religious mother, sexual obsessions, unexplained injuries and the role of a snatch of music.'

- The Times
'Police commissioner Rudolf Grovian decides to conduct an inquiry into the Cora Bender homicide case. In a park filled with people who witnessed Cora knife to the death n apparent stranger while her stunned husband Gereon tried to stop her after she slit the victim's throat. Although the local cops arrest Cora as the case is obvious with so many including her child and spouse seeing her do the act, Rudolf is fascinated by the culprit's behavior.
He interviews Cora trying to understand her motive for killing an apparent stranger. Instead Cora explains her family dynamics; not with Gereon who she loves and owes a debt of gratitude for allowing her to escape; instead with her blood family. Her mother hates her for being born and destroying her lifestyle with her birth; her disabled sister totally depended on Cora for everything. Still the cop struggles to comprehend why even as Cora explains her sexual obsession inside a religious fanaticism which bewilders him further.
This is a deep psychological crime thriller in which the audience learns the demons that haunt and obsess Cora. The story line rotates first and third person perspectives but that works quite nicely as the first person enables the reader to get inside Cora while the third person keeps the investigating exciting. Sub-genre readers will appreciate the character driven THE SINNER from the opening sequence when Cora almost kills Gereon with her powerful legs during a sexual moment until the final revelations that shake up Rudolf (and the audience).'
- MBR-Midwest Book Review
'Good news for Patricia Highsmith fans: Perhaps you've been praying that her head will be found cryogenically frozen next to Walt Disney's or immersed in liquid nitrogen in a lab in Copenhagen so that she can be reanimated to write more literary excursions into the dark depths of the human psyche. Sadly, the head next to Walt's is Esther Williams', but Bitter Lemon Press has published the German author Petra Hammesfahr, who is hailed on the back cover of The Sinner as "Germany's Patricia Highsmith." Hammesfahr, like Highsmith, wrote her first book at a tender age, 17--Highsmith wrote Strangers on a Train at 18--and she has many others on the shelf at this point, but The Sinner is the first to be published in English. Its dense, precise examination of a mind unraveling is indeed worthy of Highsmith's oeuvre--literary probing of abnormal psychology and perversity in the guise of crime fiction.
The Sinner's basic story is that of Cora Bender, a suburban mother fairly happily married, who does the books at her father-in-law's plumbing business. She has convinced herself she is content with her life, despite the feeling that "She'd sold herself cheap, almost for nothing, in return for the illusion of a well-ordered existence." The shelter that she's built for herself in this life was so that she could hide from a dark part of her past that she's buried all memory of, possibly due to heavy drug use, participatory or otherwise, indicated by the heavy scars on her arms.
This illusory shelter begins to crumble, though, one quiet Christmas Eve when her husband attempts to bring her pleasure through oral sex. This seemingly innocent act starts to erode the wall that Cora has built within between her consciousness and her past. Choosing suicide over impending awareness, she plans on swimming out into the ocean never to return during a family outing to the beach, but instead is driven to commit a heinous act with a fruit knife. It is here, on page 23, that the action ends and the book becomes a battle of wits between the police chief investigating Cora's crime, who is desperately trying to find some cause behind her apparently senseless act, and Cora trying to remain cut off from her subconscious.
The mastery of the writing lies in the layering of lies, half-truths, and story revisions spun by Cora about her life before domesticity, when she herself doesn't even know for sure where the reality lies. All the while, the police chief acts as part editor, part psychiatrist, sifting through the tales and trying to catch pieces of factual information and stitch them into a meaningful narrative.
And that you the reader discover the truth of Cora's tortured past at the same time that she does only furthers the feeling of empathy with her. It's somewhat of a grittier, nightmarish version of a Alain Robbe-Grillet scenario, with the cold statues of Marienbad replaced with hot-blooded humans.' - Citypaper.com

'The murder of a man on a beach seems so straightforward. After all, young mother Cora freely admits to the crime, which she committed in front of witness, after an inexplicable decision to kill someone else instead of herself. But as German bestseller Hammesfahr demonstrates with the exact precision of a neurosurgeon, what seems obvious is anything but, with layer after layer of horrific past events and festering feelings waiting to be revealed. THE SINNER is unnerving and weird and guaranteed to stick with you weeks later.'

- www.sarahweinman.com
'This is an extraordinarily clever novel about an apparently uncomplicated murder. On a beach in Germany, a man is stabbed to death, apparently without motivation, by a young woman out for a day's swim with her husband and child. Cora Bender does not dispute she's a killer, but Police Commissioner Grovian, faced with an easy assignment, refuses to accept Bender's guilt without an investigation of his own. He opens an appalling can of psychological worms, in which what appears obvious gradually become dubious. He solves the mystery-but this gripping book end on a terrible note of foreboding.' - The Scotsman

'Police commissioner Rudolf Grovian decides to conduct an inquiry into the Cora Bender homicide case. In a park filled with people who witnessed Cora knife to the death n apparent stranger while her stunned husband Gereon tried to stop her after she slit the victim's throat. Although the local cops arrest Cora as the case is obvious with so many including her child and spouse seeing her do the act, Rudolf is fascinated by the culprit's behavior.
He interviews Cora trying to understand her motive for killing an apparent stranger. Instead Cora explains her family dynamics; not with Gereon who she loves and owes a debt of gratitude for allowing her to escape; instead with her blood family. Her mother hates her for being born and destroying her lifestyle with her birth; her disabled sister totally depended on Cora for everything. Still the cop struggles to comprehend why even as Cora explains her sexual obsession inside a religious fanaticism which bewilders him further.
This is a deep psychological crime thriller in which the audience learns the demons that haunt and obsess Cora. The story line rotates first and third person perspectives but that works quite nicely as the first person enables the reader to get inside Cora while the third person keeps the investigating exciting. Sub-genre readers will appreciate the character driven THE SINNER from the opening sequence when Cora almost kills Gereon with her powerful legs during a sexual moment until the final revelations that shake up Rudolf (and the audience).'

- genregoroundreviews.blogspot.com
'This hauntingly insightful and sensitive German bestseller goes straight to the heart of the greatest mystery of writing about crime: the why. Cora Bender is a woman with a five-year gap in her memory, a hole into which the fate of her invalid sister, the track-marks in her arms and the origins of the scar on her forehead have all disappeared. At the age of 24 she is struggling to maintain the appearance of a normal working mother. But one Christmas Eve, a song on the radio, combined with her husband's lovemaking, begins to fracture her fragile facade, and fear and loathing come rushing out to claim her. Clinging to her sanity by a thread, Cora resolves to kill herself to avoid confronting what she cannot bear to remember. Yet even this carefully premeditated act goes hideously awry - Cora ends up murdering a man instead, in broad daylight, on the shore of a lake. Investigating this shocking crime, police commissioner Rudolf Grovian slowly recovers Cora's lost years in all their horrifying detail. When all the pieces are in place - including sexual secrets and religious mania - it is little surprise that Cora shattered into a million pieces.' - Guardian
'The Sinner (1999) [English 2007], the German author's English debut, is a highly competent and engaging psychological exploration and police procedural. Cora Bender, a young mother who stabs an apparent stranger to death at the beach, has a loose grip on reality, or perhaps a firm grip on many shifting realities, providing a major challenge to Grovian, the police commissioner who persists in following all the threads. Cora has major family issues, involving her religiously fanatic mother, strange father, and frail sister, and the way the book progresses by gradually peeling off layers to expose new truths is fascinating. The author effectively shifts first-person perspectives and third-person description. We hope there will be more Hammesfahr translations.' - StopYou'reKilling Me (SYKM)
'The Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr is the best psychological suspense novel I have read all year. One afternoon Cora, an apparently ordinary young woman, goes for a picnic by the lake with her husband and little boy. She plans to drown herself there; instead she attacks a man sitting nearby and stabs him to death, then waits calmly to be arrested. She readily signs a confession, but refuses to explain her action or cooperate with a lawyer. The detective in charge of the case doesn't believe that she killed a complete stranger for no reason and, despite her vehement objections, probes into Cora's background until, between her childhood memories and the lies she tells to the policeman, her personal hell is gradually revealed.
Hammesfahr, who has been described as Germany's Patricia Highsmith, handles the plot structure deftly to produce a brilliant study of a woman driven to the edge of madness.' - Sunday Telegraph
'Cora Bender, a German mother and housewife, teeters on the edge of madness in the brilliant, psychological thriller, The Sinner by bestselling German author Petra Hammesfahr. Unhappy with her marriage, unable to feel any love towards her son, Cora muddles through life as she attempts to forget a tortured past.
As Cora and family picnic at the beach, Cora becomes enraged over the sexually overt behavior of a young couple sitting next to them. Without warning, Cora attacks the male and kills him; so begins the unraveling of her past; a past which is inextricably linked to the man she has murdered. Although it is clear that Cora has committed the crime, Police Commissioner Rudolf Grovian is determined to discover why, even if it means uncovering that which Cora can not face.
Hammesfahr, considered one of the greatest German crime authors, deftly explores how our past serves to define us and how one can never truly run from what was. Lyrical prose and concise wording creates a novel that hits at one's very soul; each word is rift with meaning and purpose. This is a book created by a master of the genre - one that an American public would be wise to embrace.' - Literaturechick.com
'Petra Hammesfahr has frequently been likened in her native Germany to Patricia Highsmith. With The Sinner, which topped the German bestseller lists for 15 months, it is easy to see why. Cora Bender, a young wife and mother, goes out one summer's day, intending to drown herself in a lake. Instead, she attacks a man she finds there, stabbing him in the throat with such repeated violence that she has to be pulled off him. In custody she refuses to say why, simply confessing and offering no more information. Police Commissioner Rudolf Grovian, however, does not believe in motiveless killings and starts an investigation that reaches right back into Cora's childhood. Hammesfahr brilliantly sustains the psychological suspense, handling set pieces, plot and characters with great assurance. Hopefully Bitter Lemon Press, a small but imaginative imprint, will now publish more of her novels.' - The First Post
'Hammesfahr's darkly depressing yet engrossing crime novel, a bestseller in Germany, examines the price of survival for two young girls growing up in a small German community. Police commissioner Rudolf Grovian is assigned the case of Cora Bender, a young woman who murders an apparent stranger in a crowded park. The local constabulary deems it an open and shut case, but Grovian, intrigued by Cora's strange behavior, pursues his own investigation. Cora reveals the bizarre circumstances of her claustrophobic family life, from her mother's relentless blaming of Cora for stealing her life to Cora's own complicated relationship with her disabled younger sister. The mixture of both first- and third-person perspectives and the explicit discussions of religious and sexual obsessions set this work apart from standard psychological fare. Dubbed Germany's answer to Patricia Highsmith, Hammesfahr should win new American fans with this English translation.'
- Publishers Weekly
'In this complex, disturbing, and fast-paced psychological thriller, seamlessly translated by John Brownjohn, Hammesfahr slowly reveals the life of Cora Bender, a seemingly normal young wife and mother living in Germany. Normal, that is, until she leaps off her blanket at the lake and stabs the man next to her. Why did Cora snap? This question become the guiding force behind the dogged investigation led by Chief Grovian, as he delves into Cora's complicated past. The dedicated chief repeatedly interrogates Cora, and together they struggle to uncover her great secret. Cora's suppressed memories make her an unreliable narrator, and her first-person account is riddled with flashbacks and sporadic blackouts. A best-seller in Hammesfahr 's native Germany and across Europe, The Sinner is a gripping psychological thriller that will appeal to fans of Karin Fossum, Kjell Eriksson, and especially, Jurgen Christianson's equally chilling thriller, The Exception. The emphasis on Cora's troubled childhood will also appeal to mainstream readers, making this a good choice for all fiction collections.' - Booklist
'As opening lines go "It was a hot day at the beginning of July when Cora Bender decided to die. " Certainly grabs the attention. Except Cora goes to the lake with her family but instead of swimming off into oblivion as planned, she kills a man with a knife she was using to cut up her son's apple. With her confession and the evidence of dozens of witnesses it seems an easy case, but Police Commissioner Rudolf Grovian starts digging deeper to find the real story. Is Cora mad, bad or would she even know the difference? The story is told through Cora's recollections of growing up with an invalid sister, God-obsessed mother and sexually-frustrated father. There are horrible stories and many twists and turns along the way before the truth is finally revealed. Not always an easy read but this German bestseller is gripping as it veers between fantasy, horror and the uneasy search for the truth.' - Nuneaton Evening Telegraph and Coventry Telegraph
'You won't be reading a more harrowing and better psychological thriller this year than Petra Hammesfahr's The Sinner. Cora Bender kills a man on a sunny summer afternoon by the lake and in full view of her family and friends. Why? What could have caused this quiet, lovable young mother to stab a stranger in the throat. It seems an open and shut case. Cora confesses and there is no shortage of witnesses. But Police Commissioner Rudolf Grovian refuses to close the file and begins his own maverick investigation. So begins the slow unravelling of Cora's past, a harrowing descent into a woman's private hell. The twists and turns of this spellbinding novel keep the reader guessing to the end. The book spent 15 months on Germany's bestseller list and has been translated by John Brownjohn (who wrote screenplays for Das Boot, The Name of the Rose, The Piano).' - Ilford Recorder
'Petra Hammesfahr is a prolific writer, having published 30 books in her native Germany, with The Sinner the first to be published in English. She has been called a German Patricia Highsmith but a more accurate description in this case might be to Stephen King. The Sinner is a gripping novel. Its main characters are portrayed in astonishing detail with even those making only cameo appearances well developed. Its anti-hero is Cora bender, the eponymous sinner, who attacks a man and kills him in public view during a lakeside family outing. Cora's life is dissected in chilling detail, revealing a child brought up by a domineering, fanatically religious mother-think Carrie's mom in King's horror classic. Her younger sister is born a 'blue baby' who survives against the odds and the mother blames the sister's misfortunes on Cora's sins...The shocking events at the lake are the culmination of a harrowing tale of inner anguish which unfolds as police try to find out what drove an apparently ordinary mother to kill.' - Irish Mail on Sunday
'One fine afternoon, a young woman called Cora Bender, having a picnic beside a lake with her husband and son, stabs a total stranger to death in full view of his friends and her family. Obviously it's a case without doubt: Cora admits what she has done, there were witnesses galore, and the police should be able to close the file quickly. But the Commissioner begins his own investigation, descending with Cora into the hell of her life as the child of a religious fanatic and an abuser. This novel by one of Germany's most successful crime writers is wonderfully written, gripping, full of psychological insight but (at least to me) so truthful about humanity's underside as to be depressing rather than enjoyable.' - Literary Review
Jake Kerridge rounds up the year's best crime novels for The Telegraph:
'However fascinated we are by the real-life mysteries of Diana, Princess of Wales or Madeleine McCann, and even as we devour the newspapers with what Margery Allingham saw as "the bright ghoul's eyes of the calamity fancier", we return to crime novels because they provide us with the satisfaction of a solution.
The best crime this year, though, reacts against that formula, asks questions as well as giving answers, and suggests that, even when the mystery is solved, something remains out of joint.One such delightfully unsettling read is Petra Hammesfahr's whydunnit The Sinner, translated from the German by John Brownjohn. Cora Bender is a young wife and mother who is haunted by the memories of some dim disaster from her past. On her way to commit suicide, she finds herself, from a motive she knows is sound but cannot identify, stabbing a stranger to death. Her lawyer declares that he will "prove that you had a reason any normal person can understand" but Hammesfahr creates a sense here, as with the appearance of the glib psychiatrist at the end of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, that finding a psychological label to stick on murderers does not necessarily bring us closer to solving their unique mystery.'
- The Telegraph
'On the surface, Cora Bender, a young married mother of an eighteen-month-old boy, seems altogether normal, even placid. She works in the office of her husband's family business, is a meticulous housewife, and generally comports herself unexceptionally. But things in the marriage bed are not so peaceful. Her husband, who likes a bit of action on Friday and Saturday nights, tries one night to spice up their sex life with a spot of oral sex. The result is startling - Cora will not, cannot, have anything more to do with him, at least willingly. She tries, but is overwhelmed by a half-recovered memory of suffocation, followed by appalling nightmares. As her marriage deteriorates, Cora becomes more desperate. At length, she arranges an outing to a crowded beach at a nearby lake. She pretends it is a family treat, but she intends to kill herself by swimming too far out and drowning. Instead, apparently gripped by the delusion that the newly-wed husband on the blanket next to hers is raping his wife, she springs on him and stabs him to death with the fruit knife that she has just used to peel an apple for her little boy. Anyone less imaginative and committed to justice than police commissioner Rudolf Grovian would have left it at that. Cora is anxious to confess and adamantly opposed to discussing her motives, if indeed she had any. She absolutely refuses to admit that she knew her victim; Grovian is not so sure. What unfolds then is an account of Grovian's dogged investigation into what lay behind Cora's appalling act, an investigation that leads into some deeply disturbing crannies in Cora's history and that of her family, one that provides a new standard for the term dysfunctional; and another, more prominent family that goes to great lengths to protect its own. Against the advice of psychiatrists, the opinion of his superiors, and even the inclination of Cora's defence attorney, Grovian perseveres until the truth emerges. The only thing more difficult than reading this novel is putting it down. The jacket copy compares Hammesfahr to Patricia Highsmith; early Minette Walters would also be an apt parallel, but Hammesfahr is perhaps even more uncompromisingly dark than either of these.
It is also a tribute to the strength of Hammesfahr's vision that it survives the translation. John Brownjohn is a respected and very experienced translator from the German. It is hard to understand what went wrong here, but he has chosen to render the text into a peculiar mix of outdated American and British idiom that leaves the reader suspended over the mid-Atlantic around 1950. Never mind - try to ignore the clangers - this particular walk on the dark side is well worth the effort.' - Reviewingtheevidence
'One otherwise unremarkable sunny day, Cora Bender decides to end her life. Instead, she ends up stabbing a man to death in full view of his friends and her family. There seems no reason, and Cora, when taken into custody, is determined to keep the reason behind her actions hidden. When taken into custody she confesses, and wants it left at that, coming up with a tissue of lies when pressed. However, that isn't enough for police commissioner Rudolf Grovian, who embarks on a determined hunt for the real reason behind Cora's sudden frenzy, despite her desperate evasions and lies. It turns into a hunt that leads him to the revelation of one young woman's private, hellish past.
Petra Hammesfahr's THE SINNER is a brilliant book, an absolutely masterly piece of crime fiction. Once again I find myself endlessly grateful for the continuing zeitgeist of translated crime, which means that we English readers get the treat of reading this exemplary psychological thriller, a haunting descent into the torments of one woman's youthful years. Gradually, through the screen of deceptions and half-truths Cora desperately tries to construct to stop people finding out and confronting her with reality, Hammesfahr pieces together the details of her tragic past, and one horrific instance in particular. It's a past and a psychology elaborated with compassion yet directness, a savage crime explained with a strange underlying tenderness for its perpetrator.
THE SINNER immediately reminds you of the style of books written by Barbara Vine and Minette Walters, where harrowing events in the past are gradually uncovered and explain the present. They share that with the Vines', and they share a quicker pace and more direct thrust with the Walters'; it has the piercing psychological insight that is common to both. And these are high compliments indeed. It's an immensely powerful novel, suspenseful from the first page to the last, and so very gripping; one of those books I can read late into the night without a care for sleep or any early starts I might have, all through a need to know exactly what drove Cora to do what she did, what could possibly lie behind it. One of the troubles with this kind of book is that a *lot* of build-up creates a reliance on a particularly satisfying pay-off, and sometimes that pay-off, the shocking secret, isn't satisfying enough, but that's certainly not the case here. The whole thing builds into a satisfying, surprising (but very internally plausible) conclusion, a great final revelation which shocks at the same time as making complete sense.
In honesty, I can't really praise this book enough. It's a brilliant piece of work, focused, fascinating, and very well written indeed. It's a great mystery and a first-class psychological portrait of a woman tormented by her past. I really cannot recommend it highly enough. It's a book where you never really know where you are, or necessarily where you're going, but you know you definitely want to be on the journey. There's been a lot of buzz about Stieg Larsson's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, and deservedly so, but this first translation from Hammesfahr is without doubt of equal quality, and deserves just as much praise. In the foreign crime novel stakes, it was the best I read in 2007 (no, forget that: in the plain old crime novel stakes, it was the best I read in 2007), and, along with that Larsson, the crop for this year's Duncan Lawrie International Dagger looks very strong indeed… Read it. Then make them translate more.' - www.eurocrime.co.uk
'In the vast preponderance of crime stories, the detective must examine means and motive (the how and why) in order to identify the culprit (the who).This English-language debut from German writer Hammesfahr flips the traditional arrangement, by making the who and the how absolutely clear from the start, and making the why completely unknown. There is no dispute that Cora Bender attacked a man at the park with a paring knife and killed him in plain sight of her own husband, son, and plenty of witnesses. What no one, including Commissioner Grovian, can figure out is why. And to my surprise, Hammesfahr manages to make his quest to understand the "why" into a gripping tale.Even as Cora confesses and offers explanation, Grovian senses that her story isn't quite right. And for 300 pages, he prods, pokes, and literally digs into her past to try and figure out what triggered her seemingly senseless murder. Cora is a psychological mess, and as she throws out lies, half-truths, and whole truths in sometimes coherent, sometimes manic, monologues and interviews, Grovian is constantly sifting away. Cora's childhood was a very strange one, raised by an intensely Catholic mother, sexually frustrated father, and both religious and sexual themes pervade the story. Her youth was also overshadowed by her invalid younger sister, whose illness drained most of the family's energy, money, and love. Grovian must peel away at this complex family history to learn what triggered Cora, and the climactic revelation pays it all off beautifully.
I don't tend to go for crime stories that are this intensely psychological, but this is a corker. It's perhaps a touch to long, and in places a touch too slow, but these are relatively minor quibbles considering the mesmerizing tale. The comparisons to Patricia Highsmith are valid, and hopefully some of Hammesfahr's twenty or so other books are equally good and will become available in English.'
- Mostlyfiction.com
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