The 7th Day – Nika Lubitsch
Review by JJ Marsh
Nika Lubitsch’s Germany-set crime novel is a page-turning adventure that sticks in your mind.
Sybille is on trial for her husband’s murder. While on trial, as witnesses queue up to defame the once-glamorous darling of the society pages, flashbacks tell the story up till now. The structure is reminiscent of Memento, as our central character, and the reader, try to make sense of what has happened. The question also arises, can we trust our narrator?
As her lawyer, Ulli, battles to prove her innocence over six days of legal proceedings, Sybille recalls how she met Michael, their life together and how it all fell apart in such spectacular fashion. The young heady days of falling in love, the resilience of their romance in overcoming obstacles, their joys and triumphs are believable and enjoyable.
So well are Lubitsch’s characters drawn, that you feel you know them as good friends. So when Sybille’s world collapsed, I found myself saying, ‘But how could he? That’s just not like him.’
The clues are expertly woven and the tension increases over this taut, lean thriller till we discover the truth of the tale on the seventh day. The ending is atmospheric and exciting, not to mention brilliantly executed.
Unsurprisingly, a Kindle bestseller.
One of my favourite elements of this books was the use of setting. Berlin society comes vividly to life and after I put the book down, I started planning my next mini-break. This is the perfect book for a long train journey, as it’s short enough to devour in one sitting. But woe betide anyone who tries to talk to you before you get to the end.
Interview with Nika Lubitsch
The first thing that appealed to me about The 7th Day was the unusual structure. A woman on trial for the murder of her husband, the tension happens both in the present and via a series of flashbacks. Why did you choose this format?
I like stories that aren´t told in a chronological order. In a mystery a person´s life is supposed to take a course that makes murder inevitable. If you start out by describing the wonderful life a protagonist has, the story usually ends up being so utterly boring. Therefore, I need the murder to happen at the very start to pique the readers´ curiosity, because they then will ask themselves how the protagonist might have ended up in trouble to begin with. For me, suspense is created by opposition and the clash of the ways the different characters assess a situation.
One of the features of Triskele Books and our Bookclub is the role of place in the story. The 7th Day is rooted powerfully in Berlin. Which elements, for you, really bring a location to life?
I try to write books whose plots are based partly on their locations. My stories can´t just be transplanted to different cities or countries. Berlin offers a lot of options: the city´s not always so squeaky-clean history, its legacy issues after two world wars and Sovjet occupation, its isolated location in the middle of another state with a different jurisdiction, its vicinity to the Polish border – all these factors give a spark to unique plots. Besides its history and politics, it´s also its typical streets and squares that mark the city´s character. Berlin is very large and its neighborhoods sometimes differ from each other as if they were located on continents apart. On the one hand you have Zehlendorf, a neighborhood of stately mansions, copper beeches, imposing art nouveau town houses, and enchanted lakes. But there also is Neukölln, home of the largest Turkish community outside of Istanbul. By the way, I had a letter from a reader who knew exactly where my “secret location” is. He was able to name the country as well as the site of the pink house and confirmed that it is possible to simply disappear in this area, just as I have described it. Thus, I must have done something right. All my books take place not only in Berlin but also in other, sometimes exotic, countries, the condition, however, being that I must have either lived or at least have visited there (like, for example, Guyana in my book The 5th Commandment).
There is an immense confidence about your writing – the way you switch from present to past tense, your use of the second person for part of the narrative – can you tell us a little about your background in writing?
I´ve been writing since I´ve been old enough to hold a pen. Professionally, I worked as a journalist as well as a PR officer and copywriter and also wrote a number of non-fiction books. Of course, I have also looked into the theorie of creative writing over the years and am a fervent believer in Sol Stein. However, I love to break rules and have noticed, for example, that I happen to like narrative passages in books. For me it depends on the narrator´s keynote. But in order to ignore rules, you have to know them first.
Your research into German police and judicial procedures seems extensive. How did you go about learning the way the system worked?
Researching police matters was a rather frustrating affair. That´s because German police keep their cards close to their chests. “Just write your book the way you think it´s right. When your manuscript is ready, you can mail it to us and we´ll look for mistakes.” Therefore, I left the police where they belong: at the precinct. The department of corrections was much more cooperative in this respect. The warden of the correctional facility in Pankow showed me around the place for a number of hours. I was allowed to talk to the inmates, be present when their children came to see them, watch them at work bagging perfume samples, and participate in their music lesson. What really knocked me over was the fact that the warden seemed to be somehow sympathetic with her inmates, who were there on remand. She told me about some women, whose cases really made her angry at our judicial system. The press office at the criminal court also was very helpful. I was able to witness some murder trials. However, I have a little legal background myself, because I have a couple of terms at law school under my belt, with criminal law having been about the only thing that fascinated me. Among my friends there are one of the most famous German defense lawyers and also a notary, which meant that these matters were the least of my problems. The translation into English worried me much more, as our legal procedures are very different from those in the US. With Karin Dufner I had the support of a very competent woman. Karin even used to translate legal documents for a living and was able to furnish some explanations, as she knows her way around both systems.
You chose to publish independently and rapidly became a German Kindle Bestseller. What made you decide to do it yourself?
The decision wasn´t really my choice. Even though I never had a problem to convince renowned publishing houses to publish my works of non-fiction, not a soul was interested in my novels. It simply costs less money to publish a translation than to invest effort into developing a new author. Ten years ago The 7th Day was rejected by all major publishers of mystery fiction which led to the manuscript gathering cobwebs on my hard drive. As curiosity is one of my traits, I just tried out KDP last summer with my short stories, which I had been writing for years to stay in practice. And, lo and behold, the book sold quite well. Therefore, I unearthed The 7th Day, dusted it off, moved the plot ten years ahead into the future, and uploaded it. Five days later I was on the top of the best selling list, where my book remained for three months. I think nobody was more surprised than I was.
Some reviews I’ve read surprised me by finding the sexual content rather strong. I found the sex scenes entirely appropriate for the age and enthusiasm of Sybille. To me, it also says a lot about her partners. Have such reviews changed the way you write?
Some days ago the a feuilleton writer with the “Zeit”, THE German intellectual weekly paper, wanted to know why I resorted to proletarian language so much. After all, my protagonists are professionals with academic credentials. As an example, he quoted the term “poppen” (which isn´t quite as harsh as “screw” but on roughly the same stylistic level). My answer was that I only moved in academic circles and still never met anyone who´d use the word “intercourse” when talking about sexual relations.
Would you ever write anything other than mystery and crime?
Yes, of course. Under my real name I write funny, ironic books of non-fiction in the tradition of Nora Ephron, who, by the way, was my great idol. I also wrote a wonderful book together with my husband which I´ll soon publish under yet another pseudonym. It´s a book of social fiction that is set in the near future. Today, we even have a genre term for it: dystopy. The kinds of books I definitely won´t ever write are romance novels, erotic novels, and - never, ever - historic novels.
What factors propelled you to the top of the Kindle charts in Germany?
The cover just screams at you, the title is catching, and story has an interesting beginning. More than 1,100 positive reviews help, of course.
You say you live in Berlin but your soul lives in Florida – why?
In 1997 I first went to Cape Coral. And while I was there, my soul just settled next to a pelican on top of the bridge over the Caloosahatchi. When it was time to leave four weeks later, I asked my soul whether it wanted to come along. It just shook its head. Since that day I, of course, have to return in regular intervals to check on it. This winter I´ll spend six months in Cape Coral for the first time. That´s been my dream for years, and since I´m now able to work anywhere thanks to writing, it finally has become true. There were times I just couldn´t get away from Berlin. We were homesick for Cape Coral so much that we made Florida the location of our social fiction thriller, which has the preliminary title “Alligator Valley”. This way we have been able to spend every evening with our protagonists in the independent Senior Citizens´ Republic of Southwest Florida.
I’ve discovered lots of German-speaking authors in translation since moving to Switzerland, such as Wolf Haas and Dürrenmatt. Which writers would you recommend?
I love Sebastian Fitzek, a very nice Berlin mystery colleague, who writes devious thrillers.