München Blues by Max Bronski

Oktoberfest brings a lot of customers to Wilhelm Gossec’s this-and-that shop. The hideously overpriced merry-go-round horse in the window captures their attention, and they wind up leaving with a souvenir, an old piece of Bavarica that Gossec has snagged at an estate sale, or maybe even an oil painting artfully half hidden so that the visitors think they have made a discovery and are getting a bargain. One particular Oktoberfest evening something, or rather someone, unusual turns up outside of Gossec’s shop: a terribly drunk man who had also been beaten and robbed.

München Blues by Max Bronski

Gossec, the first-person narrator of München Blues says, “…when I see some poor sod lying there, the Boy Scout in me stirs” (p. 10) and he feels compelled to do his good deed for the day. In this case, the deed draws him into a mix of greed, violence and chicanery. According to a business card the robbers have overlooked, the poor sod who has wound up in front of Gossec’s store is Ernst Hirschböck, an important member of Bavaria’s legislature. He’s a state secretary, one level below a minister. Gossec cleans him up a bit, calls a taxi, and sends him homeward. Not, however, without also keeping something that he found on Hirschböck along with the business cards: some printed matter, a brief collection of papers.

Those turn out to be very interesting, or at least to have aroused the interest of a surprising number of people. Two men from law enforcement who decline to say just who they work for (“We’re something like Praetorians”) appear on his doorstep not two hours after he has sent Hirschböck homeward. They ask about the papers, Gossec says he only found the business cards and an invitation to an Oktoberfest event, and they perform a quick search of his shop. “When they were gone, I thought for the first time that I should have at least asked for [their] names. But probably the shy one would have called himself Maier-2 and the one in the green shirt Müller-5. Or something like that. People like that are practically born in camouflage.” (p. 15)

A couple of days later, Hirschböck’s associate Traublinger shows up. Traublinger has a buzz cut, harsh features, and bursts through the shop door with almost enough force to knock the bell off its mount. Gossec hates him on the spot. He brings Hirschböck’s thanks, along with repayment of the taxi fare plus five times that amount as a sign of gratitude, along with a personal note saying that if Gossec ever needs help, he has but to ask.

Gossec begins to forget the strange events with the state secretary. He’s concerned about his old friend Julius who got caught up in the dotcom boom and left high and dry in the bust. Gossec persuades Julius to come with him on a spontaneous post-Oktoberfest trip to Sicily by way of helping him back on his feet. They have a grand time in the Mediterranean sun made all the sweeter by knowing it’s the time of year when dark, gray, rainy and chill autumn closes in on Munich. Upon their return, however, they find that Julius’ apartment has been cleaned out to bare walls by an eviction company.

Gossec springs into action to help his friend. He discovers that the company Julius owes rent to, and whose letters he had been assiduously ignoring, is the same one that invited the state secretary to the Oktoberfest event just before he was beaten and robbed. Well. Gossec has in the meantime finally read the dossier that he liberated from the state secretary, and it is inside information about plans to develop the area where he and Julius both live from the disreputable surroundings of a slaughterhouse into a chic city-center neighborhood. Well, well. Gossec finds out who has removed Julius’ belongings, roughs him up a bit, and learns where it has all gone. A few hours later, Gossec returns to that company and sees that the man he questioned before has been shot dead. Well, well, well.

Untying this knot takes up the rest of München Blues, which is in the end not too much as the book is a fast 140 pages. I enjoyed seeing Gossec in streets that I knew well, meeting in cafes that I had also visited and seeking information in a landmark skyscraper that was built while I lived in the city. The quarter in question, the Schlachthofviertel, has in fact been redeveloped and is now the subject of articles that talk about its eclectic mix of authenticity, international charm, and elements of Munich’s underground(ish) scenes. From Gossec’s description of his shop and his walks, I would have put it closer to the site of Oktoberfest than the Schlachthofviertel actually is, but that does not get in the way of the story at all. There’s also more casual violence than I would have thought that someone in his position could get away with: at one point, he jumps all over Traublinger’s prized BMW, breaking headlights, bending its hood, and doing further damage. Given that Traublinger works directly for a state secretary, I’m surprised that the regular police don’t get involved.

On the other hand, part of Bronski’s point of view in the book is that Munich is not nearly as clean and as pretty as it likes to pretend to be. There’s petty crime, there’s organized crime, there’s corruption throughout, and personal favors that are hard to separate from corruption. The rich and the powerful nearly always come out on top, and they like it that way. As Bronski writes, “the sky over Bavaria is blue and white like the state’s flag, except when it isn’t.”

The overall impression is by no means grim. Gossec is only partly likable, but one of his best traits is his droll sense of humor, usually delivered in asides like the one above about Maier-2 and Müller-5. (He does eventually learn their names, but continues to refer to them as he thought at the beginning.) When Gossec first puts the state secretary into a taxi, he looks out of his window some minutes later to find that the taxi has not moved at all. The driver is of Turkish descent; the state secretary has a very strong dialect accent and is also drunk as a skunk. Neither can understand the other. Is the street Meiselböck or Meischelbach or Meichelbeck or what? Fortunately, Gossec knows the street and can send them on their way. Later, Gossec is musing on how he would follow a visit to the city tax department (where he was usually begging for an exemption of some sort) by faking his way into the employees’ cafeteria there. “How could an external person get in there at all? Very simple, you went in, and said ‘Grüß Gott!’ [the traditional Bavarian greeting] to everyone around and got in line without grumbling. Every Bavarian had the deep, countryman’s knowledge that terrorists and hardened criminals would never say ‘Grüß Gott!’ And nobody would want to keep the remaining petty criminals away from a meal.” (p. 53)

The case comes to a good close, although corruption in high places manages to cover itself up again, and the powerful remain in power. Gossec wins a small victory for his friend Julius. Along the way, he gathers up old and new acquaintances so that it’s possible to see the shape of a recurring cast for further mishaps and investigations by the old curiosities handler, and indeed there are now six Gossec books. München Blues is the second, and the only one I have read, an enjoyable way to revisit Munich not long after the turn of the millennium.

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