I picked up The Club (2019), the debut novel by Der Spiegel author Takis Würger on the strength of Megan Abbot’s book blurb: “Wildly entertaining.” And I’m glad I gave this novel a go, despite its cheesy front cover. The Club made a splash in Würger’s native Germany when it was originally published in 2017, with the thriller becoming a national bestseller. Now at last we have the English translation (from Charlotte Collins) of this slick little thriller. In this book review of The Club by Takis Würger, I’ll give you the rundown on the story, its strengths and weaknesses, along with some ideas of what recommended books to read next if you loved The Club. Let’s get started!
PLOT of The Club
In this story, our German hero Hans Stichler has grown up basically an orphan after his mother’s death when he was young and his father’s passing not long after. After his father died, his mother’s eccentric and brittle English half-sister Alex decides that, rather than adopting teen Hans, she’ll pay for him to go to an expensive Catholic boarding school. There, Hans develops his natural talent for boxing, a sport his father encouraged him to pursue when he was just a child. Among all the male teachers and classmates, Hans found that most people left him alone to find solace in books.
Aunt Alex is something of an enigma for Hans. She drifts in and out of his life periodically, always trailing with her an icy exterior. Her mental health issues are alluded to without labeled with a diagnosis. When he looks her up, Hans learns she’s an acclaimed art historian teaching at Cambridge University. Still, no matter how talented and notable Alex is, Hans resents her on some level for leaving him as an orphan and not adopting him or taking back to England with her. And she does keep her distance before reaching out to him shortly before he’s set to graduate. Alex flies him to Cambridge saying there’s something she needs help with that he could help her with solving.
At Cambridge, Alex proposes to help Hans gain acceptance at the prestigious university if he agrees to infiltrate one of the school’s secret clubs, The Pitt Club. Under an assumed name, Hans would be a part of the club, whose members past and present count leaders in politics, business, and banking. Alex tells Hans that a crime has been committed, though she won’t get into details, and needs him to be an observer, essentially a spy, and report back to him periodically. Nobody would know they are related, and their communication would channel through a mutual contact, for the most part.
It’s not a bad offer. Hans doesn’t have much back in Germany where he has no family. An education at Cambridge would doubtless set him up for a bright future. And Hans has an orphan’s yearning for family of any kind, even if it is his severe and remote Aunt Alex, and, as much as he resents her for abandoning him, wants to please her.
Hans says yes.
The rest of the novel follows Hans’ life in Cambridge as he tries to infiltrate the Pitt Club and periodically checks in with Charlotte, a PhD student who has been recruited by Alex to help Hans get accepted in the club. Hans’ talent for boxing helps make his case as the Pitt Club has a connection to the university’s boxing team. Hans is a formidable talent and joins in preparation for the legendary Cambridge – Oxford boxing match. The deeper that Hans finds himself assimilating into this toxic world of privilege, which seems to operate without threat, the more he realizes just how much corruption, violence have infused the elite rankings of the university and the larger power brokers that lead the world.
As Hans gets pulled further in, can he find a way out, or will he accept the Club’s promise of a lucrative future in the Club’s ultra-selective network of power brokers?
Can he keep a clear mind, or will his emotions overcome his better judgment?
You’ll race through this short thriller to find out.
STRENGTHS of The Club
You can read this brief novel (at 212 pages) in a single sitting, and part of that page-turning effect is the tight pacing. The book unfolds as both a coming-of-age novel intertwined with a thriller. It was an interesting choice to have Alex drop Hans in Cambridge and have him figure things out for himself. That she never specifies the crime means that every conversation we get we’re reading between the lines. We’re denied the specifics, too, left only to piece together the rupture through conversations and asides. We’re not told what to look for, just to look.
Another interesting choice is to have this book be told through the perspectives of several characters, not just Hans, Alex, and Charlotte, but also other members of Cambridge, the Pitt Club, or people on the perimeter of the action. This kept the story fresh and clicking along. You wouldn’t get stuck with a character for too long before their part was up and then you’re onto someone else. That’s actually pretty similar to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, with alternating perspectives and storylines. Würger’s rotating perspectives gives a panoramic look at the Club, Cambridge University, and the privilege that extends to graduates.
Hans’ voice was the most intriguing to me. He is written as a complete outsider to Cambridge, and it’s through his eyes that we see how the school shapes him. He’d actually make a perfect spy, because he was such a skilled observer, yet mature enough to make split-second decisions and own them.
I did also like the boxing aspect. This book is loaded with testosterone, with few female voices (my gripe below), but it does have the effect of immersing you in that world, and part of that is through boxing. I love the way this book includes boxing as a recurring theme and plot device. There’s, of course, the larger strategy of the plot architected by Alex’s, but there’s also the in-the-moment technique of beating an opponent. At one point, a character notes that:
I knew that boxing matches were won in the mind, at least that was what people said, and if it were true, then right now my opponent was winning. (p. 139)The Club, Takis Würger
The book really lived up to that idea, that boxing matches, and all games of strategy, were psychological. In that case, Alex could have boxed with the best of them.
WEAKNESSES of The Club
At times, the book’s sparse language got on my nerves. It was hard to distinguish one voice from the other, and they all blended together, though that could be the translation (by Charlotte Collins). Having studied a little German myself, I wonder if some of the warmth in the story just didn’t come through in translation. That being said, the voice is very much like Bret Easton Ellis and Teddy Wayne, and if that’s your thing, you’ll find this to be a nice read.
The next two paragraphs have spoilers, so skip ahead to the next section if you don’t want to read it.
[WARNING: SPOILERS PARAGRAPH] My main issue with the book is that when we get to the big reveal of the crime, it somehow reads as a disappointment or let down. We’re led to believe the tragedy is one thing (murder), only to find out that it’s something different (systematic rape and assault), which is equally if not more horrifying than a killing. Yet they buildup makes anything less than a murder seem anticlimactic, I think, especially if you’re a woman and a devastating event “don’t live up to the hype.” I think that was a pretty poor way to structure the mystery.
[WARNING: SPOILERS PARAGRAPH] I read a review of this book on Goodreads and saw that someone tore apart the white male savior aspect of this, and I do think that’s a fair critique. However, the orchestration of Hans joining the club is Alex’s design first and foremost. It’s her attempt to get revenge for her own assault and now Charlotte’s, and Hans is just a pawn in their long game. I think this could have been fixed by more sections from Alex and Charlotte’s perspectives. Alex reads as a lean, mean punisher skillful at manipulating the outcome of an event, but Charlotte is more passive, and she doesn’t even seem to actually want revenge. Indeed, she never says that, and Alex just identifies it for her: “You don’t want justice, Charlotte.” (p. 170). If Alex saw Charlotte’s search for vengeance, even violent payback, why didn’t we?
Ultimately, I’d give Takis Würger’s The Club a 3.5-star rating rounded up to 4 stars, and I would recommend it for a quick beach read or if you need something quick between two larger books. Würger marks a fresh and welcome literary voice who makes some astute and nuanced observations about privilege, prestige, and toxic masculinity. This book is a fine thriller, and Würger has some interesting tricks up his sleeve that take this conventional mystery to a deeper level on the character, plot, and thematic level.
FIVE BOOKS to READ IF YOU LIKED THE CLUB
Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates
If you liked The Club, pick up Christopher J. Yates’ Black Chalk (2013). This book also deals with the pain and privilege packed away in the halls of Britain’s elite universities. Here we read the fallout of a shocking act among six friends in their first year at Oxford University. Their game keeps pushing deeper into a thirst for violence that seems to have no end.
Fun fact: Yates blurbed The Club, writing: “The Club, Takis Würger’s exquisite debut, is a novel as rare as a phoenix, a story both beautifully told and white-knuckle thrilling. A tale of pain, privilege, and revenge, The Club reads like something both mystical and modern, a fable whose pages demand to be turned.”
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Were your favorite parts of The Club the boxing scenes? You’ll love Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996). Like The Club, this book features the rush of male-on-male violence as an underground club springs up where men can fight each other. There’s even a part in The Club where a character, Billy, goes to what is essentially a fight club. In Palahniuk’s now-classic movie, made into a movie directed by David Fincher, there’s also a thriller aspect with a huge twist at the end. The book also makes some wry observations about masculinity, society’s efforts to contain natural violent urges, and the rage behind the most powerful men in the world.
I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe
One of the best parts about The Club was looking at Cambridge University through an outsider’s eyes. That’s why I’m recommending I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004) by Tom Wolfe for readers who enjoyed seeing a prestigious college through new eyes. In this novel, the titular heroine Charlotte Simmons leaves her small town and arrives at Dupont University, an amalgam of several US colleges and universities but most notably Duke. (Wolfe did research at my own college, the University of Pennsylvania.) While she starts out as an innocent, Charlotte’s life is transformed over the course of her freshman year. In that way, this Bildungsroman is a coming-of-age set in the hallowed halls of an acclaimed university known for partying as much for academia. Here, the equivalent to the Pitt Club would be the fraternities.
Loner by Teddy Wayne
Teddy Wayne’s novel Loner (2016) made my Best Books of 2016. I was blown away by Wayne’s ability to put you totally in the mind of David Federman, a Harvard University freshman who develops an obsessive crush on a classmate, Veronica. David is a total loner and a weird guy, the kind of person who can blend into the walls of the parties at the Ivy League University. As in The Club, David hatches a strategy to invade the popular ranks of an elite university for an ulterior motive, in a kind of upward mobility that shows how easily these people can be played. Wayne nimbly walks the line between disturbing and hilarious satire.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
No list of recommended books if you liked The Club, or any book about an ultra-selective group of students at college, would be complete without Donna Tartt’s classic novel, The Secret History (1992). This classic novel is told through the perspective of Richard, also an outsider like Hans, who transfers to a rigorous liberal arts college in New England and becomes sucked into a tight-knit crew of brilliant students chosen to study Classics—and Classics only—under the tutelage of an eccentric, enigmatic, and influential professor. When their friendship spills over into violence, Richard finds himself at the center of a murder. This is one of my all-time favorite books, definitely a desert island read for me, and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a great companion read for The Club.