As I had scheduled some high-brow cultural activities (including a 5-hour marathon staging of Schiller’s Wallenstein!) I decided that I would relax a little and read purely for entertainment’s sake while travelling in Germany last month. Cue the German crime wave!
My first destination was Munich, scene of my mid-degree year abroad and only a hop, skip and a jump from many of Bavaria’s best-known tourist attractions. The same can be said of Oliver Pötzsch’s The Ludwig Conspiracy (translated by Anthea Bell) which starts in an antiquarian bookshop in Munich’s West End but includes “excursions” to all of Ludwing II’s famous castles. “Excursions” – you’ll know what I mean when I describe the plot a little.
Steven Lukas owns an antiquarian bookshop in Munich’s West End. His business isn’t thriving but he’s holding on for the love of it. One day he discovers a book on his shelves that he hasn’t bought – it was parked there for safe keeping by a man since murdered. Soon Lukas is the prime suspect and on the run, not only from the police, but also from a couple of mysterious organisations who would do anything to get their hands on this strange coded volume. The reason for this being that the book reveals the truth about the death of Ludwig II, Bavaria’s fairy-tale king and builder of Linderhof, Herrenchiemsee and Neuschwanstein. (The truth regarding Ludwig’s death, it must be said, is still shrouded in mystery.)
Clues to crack the codes are to be found at these locations. Hence the tour around Bavaria included in these pages. Not that I had time to follow them this time but I have visited Ludwig’s castles and the scene of his death multiple times in the past, and I enjoyed revisiting them in Pötzsch’s novel, I also enjoyed the convoluted plot, the conspiracy and the exuberance of it all. Pötzsch even manages to reincarnate the mad-king in contemporary times!
There are two narratives: the contemporary narrative solving the puzzle and the historical narrative, which emerges as the mysterious volume is decoded. This latter gives a good indication of the tensions in Ludwig’s court, as his fantasies threatened to bankrupt Bavaria and he refused to engage with reality. Was he really mad? The jury’s out after reading this but I no longer see him as a romantic tragic figure. I hadn’t realised that he hated Munich so much. I’ve cooled towards him now …..
The Ludwig Conspiracy would make a fantastic film or mini TV series, though I suspect filming permissions at the key locations would be hard, if not impossible, to obtain.
My second read is not located in any of my holiday destinations. Silence by Mechthild Borrmann (translated by Aubrey Botsford) won the German Crime Prize in 2012. It too involves the uncovering of secrets from the past and serves as a warning. Sometimes the past is best left alone.
Following the death of his father, Robert Lubisch finds a photograph of a unknown woman in his papers and he takes it upon himself to find out who she is. The only clue he has is the photographer’s stamp on the back. Having enlisted the help of a journalis, he soons feels uncomfortable and tries to call it off, but the journalist refuses. Which costs her her life.
Meanwhile on the Mediterranean, Therese Mende is living in comfortable retirement, yet receiving updates on the investigation back home. This triggers memories of her happy youth, her troubled teens and her unhappy early married life which culminated in her hasty departure from the village. These chapters are easily the most powerful of the book as they show the insidious rise of Nazism and the effect on the German people themselves and the divisions caused in close-knit communities.
Lubisch’s research into his father’s past, the contemporary murder investigation and Mende’s memories are skillfully aligned to reveal the truth. The silence of the past becomes “a membrane of time that cannot endure” and of all the cataclysmic revelations Lubisch discovers that he and his father “were closest when he was lying to me”. What about? Time for me to preserve silence, I believe.
Finally I returned to Weimar and the second part of Bernd Köstering’s trilogy set in that wonderful place. In Goetheruh, Hendrik Wilmut, a renowned Goethe expert, was enlisted by the police to track down the thief stealing artifacts from Goethe’s House. In Goetheglut, Wilmut finds himself accused of murder and needs to find a crucial piece of Goethe-related evidence to prove his innocence. It’s not easy – whoever is setting him up is intent of destroying him, slowly, surely, piece by piece. And just when he locates the evidence, the library housing – the Anna Amalia Library – burns down. This library is not just a cultural icon in Weimar – it is one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, and the fire in 2004 was real enough. I really enjoy his Köstering builds the real Weimar into these novels and I envy his character’s life there – traumas notwithstanding!
This is not a whodunnit – the haggard man with nothing is present from the start. The question is why done it and that becomes clearer as the victim count mounts. I actually had a certain sympathy with the haggard man’s grievance because Köstering’s main character showed a number of unsympathetic character flaws in these pages. Not quite the charming intellectual of Goetheruh, but then stress can bring out the imperfect side of us all!
To finish off my reading and holiday itinerary I needed a crime novel set in Dresden. I couldn’t find anything before I left but found plenty while I was there viewing the
sights bookstores. Like Köstering, Beate Baum is using a local literary icon – in her case, Erich Kästner – as a building block for her Kästner-Krimi series. There are now six volumes – I came back with book 4 – Weltverloren – for reasons that will become clear later in the year. November, perhaps? 😉