Right through the middle of the picture ran the long, gleaming scar of the sector border, dividing everything according to compass points, beating its way through everywhere, ripping the thin spider-web into halves, jagged, ruthless, lit up like a long, thin playing field, the length of a city, for whatever triumphs and defeats might come along.
Berlin, October 2011. The Wall is still standing and East Germany is on the edge of bankruptcy, its continued existence dependent on the successful conclusion of economic talks with the Federal Republic of Germany. Then an old man is found hanging from the pipe-line leading from Russia to the GDR and all clues point to the Stasi – just the thing to jeopardise those crucial talks. It’s not a case you’d volunteer for but someone has to draw the short straw. Enter Detective Martin Wegener, 56.
Was there ever a more unfortunate entrance and introduction to a character than that first paragraph? I am not going to quote it but let me just say I have an aversion to toilet scenes. I was also afeared that it indicated an obsession with genitalia. I wasn’t wrong. There’s some highly sexual and graphic content scattered throughout the book. Some of it surreal, distasteful and quite baffling in that it adds nothing the plot. If it’s symbolic, it was lost on me.
That said, let me tell you about the good things and there are many. This is a terrific thriller, with twists and turns aplenty. Naturally Wegener is caught between a rock and a hard place. Forced to work on the case with a colleague from the West, he is damned if he solves the case and damned if he doesn’t. He is a victim of the state among many victims – some of whom are broken and smashed, others (like Wegener himself) believe they still have some say in their life, even as it spirals out of control. Like all good detectives, his personal life is a shambles. He has recently broken up with Karolina and is struggling to come to terms with that (hence the sexual preoccupations and fantasies(?) mentioned above). More disturbingly his trusted colleague, Früchtl, has recently disappeared yet his voice inhabits Wegener’s mind, every hour of every day. Früchtl continues to mentor Wegener, to bully and cajole him. He acts as Wegener’s conscience. This dialogue between Wegener and his presumed-dead colleague was the real highlight for me. Full of dry deadpan humour, it adds a touch of lightness to the proceedings. But like all things in this repressive state, everything sours in the end, even this relationship.
The political satire is biting. The failing dictatorship is shown for what it is but the West comes under fire too.
Martin, the only difference between East and West Germany is that the citizens of the Federal Republic don’t talk about the crap their state gets up to because they’ve got their mouths full of organic fillet steak.
The premise in Urban’s thriller is firmly rooted in political probabilities and an understanding of the history of the DDR, while not necessary, does add depth to the story. Mrs Peabody Investigates has helpfully compiled a glossary of the salient terms and key persons.
At 512 pages, this is a long book and apart from the bits I mentioned at the start of my review they flew by. I didn’t even mind when the final paragraph returned me to the scene and action of the opening. It’s a very effective mirror image and I’ve got to give credit for that.