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Book Review and Summary: "The Sinner" by Petra Hammesfahr

Jennifer Branton is a nerd by trade most often writing about books and video games. She has a BA in Journalism from Lewis University


Translated from its original German tongue, The Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr is one dark but entertaining read with a draw so powerful USA released a limited mini series with an Americanized version of the story in 2017 featuring Jessica Biel as the title character.

On a warm summer afternoon Cora Bender (for television, Cora Tanetti,) is a young wife and mother who on the surface seems to sharing an afternoon with her husband and young son on the beach when she seems to suffer a psychotic break and attack a man at random whom was playing his radio too loudly.

With no remorse for her crime, Cora then leads police chief Rudolf Grovian (Harry Ambrose in the television treatment) down the radio hole of an reliable narrative in which few facts seem to be consistent: somehow Cora knows the victim Georg Frankenberg (Frankie for the mini series), a woman died, and that Cora is relieving some sort of post traumatic stress disorder stemming from whatever event brought together victim and murderess over five years before.

Many of the facts book to television are similar with the Americanized adaptation for the small screen referencing Cora's overly religious mother, a sickly younger sister, and a rebellious period in Cora's youth when she was missing for some months before resurfacing.

Much darker than her onscreen portrayal by Jessica Biel, Cora Bender is much darker and more deceptive in the book, intentionally stringing along the police and even making threats when they ask to investigate her family. On the other hand, Cora Tanetti suffers from amnesia and truly doesn't recall how the pieces come together. Other characters balance the television story line, and events that Cora falsely remembers are of things that happen to other characters. The show also teases out the fateful day the truth is revealed into be night of drug use and partying turned wrong, instead of the books final days of Magdalena.

The Sinner

Taunted from childhood by an overly religious mother that never allowed Cora to experience anything but forced prayers and repentance for an sin she did't bear, it was understandable early on how Cora reached a psychotic breaking point.

A mother that never wanted to be a mother, Mrs Bender brought home her final child, a sickly blue baby named Magdalena that after six weeks in the hospital had defied all odd after being born with a hole in her heart, under developed lungs, and renal failure was being brought home to die.

Mrs Bender told Cora that it was her fault that her sister was dying, that birthing Cora had sucked all the life out of her mother's womb and that it was Cora's sin that would ultimately cause her sister's death. Cora was told to keep from sinning was the only thing that might allow Magdalena a little longer on earth and from an early age Cora was tormented to do things like burn her clothing and books.

The sin wasn't Cora's alone to bear as Mr Bender was also oppressed under the thumb of his wife and not allowed any further physical contact with her and sentenced to share a room with Cora from the time she was a small child until a teen.

It is deeply insinuated through Cora remember seeing her father pleasuring himself from time to time and her mentions of wetting the bed until her teen years and finally offering herself to him as a preteen, that Cora was probably sexually abused by her father throughout this whole time.

Cora finds no escape from this hell though a kind neighbor named Grit sometimes sneaks her candy and looks after her; a role which is compressed in the television show by Aunt Margret. The aunt plays much more of a role in the book than the occasional mention and actually helps lie for Cora to the police.

The Plan

The Cora Bender of the book is a thief early on, shoplifting candy and makeup to sell at school to buy more candy to hide in the family's barn. As Cora gets older and her crimes become more serious, she realizes that her mother is wrong when she says that her continued sinning is causing Magdalena to go through a series of life-threatening operations.

In fact, Magdalena is becoming stronger and actually overcomes leukemia. Cora, faced with the opportunity to do something good, decides through her theft and the embezzlement of her father she can do something positive. She has grown to like her strange sister, who has become wise beyond her years after spending most of her short life in the company of adults.

Cora Bender plans to save money to fly Magdalena to the United States, hoping that better doctors might be able to cure her, whereas Cora Tanetti simply planned to sneak away with Magdalena and live their own lives, without the oppression of their religious mother.

Magdalena is different as well in the novel universe. A darker force that is the puppet master and dictates pimping out Cora "on dates" to steal men's money. On the television show, she gets none of the sympathy we feel for her when she is presented as the dying girl aching to live her final days to the fullest.

Both the novel and show eventually reach the point of that final night, and how everything fell apart.

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Cora's testimony in both the book and series constantly leave you guessing as to what is the actual events. First Cora states she never knew the victim, then changing her story several times first casting him as a bad boy that she eventually fell in love with, as a man that tried to pimp her, and as a complete stranger.

Where TV added a few other side character's to shape that Cora conveniently forgot about her old group that made her do drugs and eventually caused the death of her sister, Cora of the novels is a liar that refuses to share the truth with the police and wants to be convicted at all costs to purge herself of the her final sin: Allowing her sister to die.

Although restructured for the television series, Cora also is missing for awhile after being thrown from a car and is nursed back to health by a doctor that keeps her drugged and addicted to heroin as a way to keep her silent about his connection to the horrible night when Magdalena died.


The Last Dance

Played more strongly into a once only night on the town, televisions Magdalena comes to a bitter end after Cora sneaks her out on her birthday to a bar to meet up with some of Cora's friends.

What comes about in series is a beautiful night where our dying girl finds a boy, Frankie to share her last night and they dance and and make out during a wild party in the country club and Magdalena suffers cardiac arrest. Frankie tries to save his companion giving her CPR and ultimately cracks two of her ribs in the process. Cora attacks him and blames him for her sister's accidental passing.

Rather than suffer the consequences of calling the police, the group leaves Magdalena's and goes on cover up the secret with Cora out of the way after being thrown from the car.

It is only when Cora resurfaces years later and sees Frankie on the beach that she becomes catatonic and attacks him the same manner as she did five years before this time using the knife she had in her hands when cutting apples on the beach for her son. Reliving the event, she doesn't recall that she is killing Frankie because of the connection to her sister's death.

Differing in the novel, Cora was intent on killing herself that day and in the same manner accidentally stumbles upon Frankie years later and not realizing her trigger of the same music being played on the night her sister died, jumps on Frankie and viciously stabs him to death.

When Cora Bender comes to realize what she has done, it is the covering up of what she knows about Magdalena's death that causes Cora to intentionally weave a fake narrative whereas on the mini series she simply is mixing up the facts from being so viciously victimized her whole life.

The Verdict

Cora Bender makes no close connection to the police detective throughout the story like Cora Tanetti whom is ultimately spared prison time in favor getting the psychiatric help she has needed for sometime coming.

Cora Tanetti also has the support of her husband whom despite his family who despises Cora for her actions and he stands by her making for great drama. Cora Bender on the other hand is abandoned by her husband as soon as the incident takes place and never has contact with her son or husband again.

Cora Bender is also given psychiatric help but is granted being in a day program and allowed to return to her aunt's home in the evenings after it is deemed that her actions were more the knee jerk reaction of someone suffering from mental illness that a calculated murderer.

I enjoyed both the series and the book, but they maintain a different feel on the reader and viewer.

I sympathize with Cora Tanetti to overcome such struggles and I really commend her husband and a police detective in Harry Ambrose who put finding the truth above what on paper was an open and shut case.

Cora Bender of the novel I feel even though she deeply was affected by abuse and mental illness got off too easily by manipulating her way out of a murder charge. Cora Bender is the worst of what we see on the news each day knowing that a guilty party had gotten away with heinous action just because of loopholes. I really couldn't feel for Cora Bender and actually hated her most of the book, extremely opposite of the character when she was played by Jessica Biel who only gained the viewers sympathy.

The Sinner is an outrageous book and a delightfully dark read.


Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on September 22, 2018:

I like the sound of this book. It sounds very interesting. Thankyou for the review.

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