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Archive for the ‘crime / spy / thriller’ Category

As we came into the final week of GLM VII, I noticed that my female:male author ratio, whch I try to keep at 50:50, was woeful.  Not through lack of effort on my part, but because the ladies simply weren’t cutting it.  Of the 4 German titles longlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, I have abandoned 2 and am so underwhelmed by a third that writing about it is an impossibility.  This is not what I intended at all.  Desperate measures were needed, and so I turned to an old favourite, (Though I’m not so sure I should use the term old in connection with Zeh.)

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Translated from German by Christine Slenczka

Eagles and Angels is her 2002 Deutscher Bücherpreis winning debut novel.  (This award was the precursor of the Leipzig Book Prize,  not the German Book Prize.)  It is full of the verve and vim I was missing in the more literary offerings alluded to  above, and this kept me reading even though novels with drug addled narrators are not usually my preferred reading material.

Max is traumatised. His girlfriend, Jessie, shot herself in the head while talking to him on the phone and he is not coming to terms with it at all.  The solace provided by the lines of coke he snorts diminishes in direct proportion to his increasing intake.  One night he decides to phone in to a late night radio show to confess.  While he is not directly responsible for Jessie’s death, he confesses to the murder of her previous boyfriend, Shershah.  Instead of turning him over to the authorities, the radio host, Clara, tracks bim down.  Turns out she is researching for a psychology degree and sees him as an interesting case study.

She convinces him to tell his story, and so a tortured and surprising history unfolds as Max dictates it into one cassette after another.  Max hasn’t always been the loser we know him to be.  He was once a hot shot lawyer, specialising in the expansion of the EU to the East.  He should have known better than to get involved with Jessie, but an early teenage infatuation with the drug runner’s daughter makes it impossible for  him to walk away when she comes to him, years later, in her hour of need.

As he makes his confession, more and more unexpected connections are made in Max’s mind.  Like the connection between his seemingly stellar career and the opening of drug routes from Yugoslavia to Europe during the Balkan Wars in the early 1990’s.  He becomes convinced that Jessie was murdered, and that he is next.  Death is something to be welcomed and so he sets off with Clara from Leipzig to Vienna.  In his mind it is a journey back to the  hornet’s nest, where he is bound to be killed.  When the hit squad doesn’t arrive, he (and we) are forced to ask why?

Given that Max, in his drug-addled state, is the most unreliable of narrators, things are more weird in Vienna than I was expecting.  He and Clara are squatting in some kind of derelict outhouse – don’t ask me if they’re lying low or wanting to be found, because they send out some very mixed messages.  Of course, everything is filtered through Max, so what sense can we expect to get out of a coke-head?  The only person with any semblance of common sense is Jacques Chirac, not the politician, but Jessie’s great dane!

The question constantly running through my head was why does Clara put up with this? Because let’s be clear. Max is not good to her.  He hits her.  Is psychologically cruel.  Feeds her coke when she is sick. She must be really struggling for a subject for her Ph.D to continue with this field study.  Or does she have other motivations?

Of course, nobody is what they seem and Max is in the midst of a smaller circle than he could ever anticipate. What’s really clever is that there is nobody to sympathise  with wholeheartedly. . Not Max.  Not Clara. (Even if her psychological manipulations are much to be admired.) Jessie maybe?  Only maybe.  The great dane? Definitely,

And the victims of the Balkan wars.

Zeh’s plot ingeniously welds a grimy, gritty, private tragedy to the horrendous fate of those caught up in the Balkan conflict of the 1990s.  Is it a fictional connection? Probably not – Zeh used to work for the UN and is, therefore, fully aware of the machinations at the heart of European politics.  And how that implicates what we – the public – may think of as honourable institutions.

In a rare moment of lucidity, Max surveys the land outside the squat,  It’s littered with dog turds (because, of course, he and Clara, cannot be bothered to clean up after Jacques Chirac.)  I wonder if that patch of land is symbolic of a greater political landscape.

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Secretaries, clerks and diplomats, hastening down corridors, ignored them as they passed. The talk was of Brussels. The city’s name was whispered like a password. It lay on every tongue and was stammered out by every typewriter; it was cut into the white wax of the stencils and rung on every telephone.

The technologies (typewriters, stencils) are the only clues that we’re not in the the present day.  We’re in 1968 when Britain was obsessed with trying to gain membership of the then European Common Market.  Our applications of 1963 and 1967 had been vetoed by France, and Germany was seen as being our closest European ally. But that close friendship is in peril in A Small Town in Germany.  It’s 1968 and unrest in Europe is broadspread,  Student protests in Paris. Dissent infamously crushed in Prague in the spring.  The Germans are also unsettled.  With the chancellor, Kiesinger, an ex-nazi, denazification is but a mirage.  The growing tide of left-wing opposition is led, at least in Le Carré’s novel, by the British-hating Karfeld, who favours a rapprochement to the Eastern bloc.  The last thing the British diplomat in Bonn (the small town of the title, even if it was the then capital of the Federal Republic) needs is a junior member of staff, with distant connections to the East, disappearing with highly sensitive files ….

Enter Alan Turner, the Foreign Office’s bloodhound, the outsider, guaranteed to stir things up.  Not only because of his job, but because he is a brute, totally indifferent to the damage he can cause, the feelings of those he interviews.  Not adverse to hitting an interviewee – even if female – to get to the truth.  It’s the only thing that matters to him, and in the process he uncovers lots of dirty secrets.

Because the embassy in Bonn has been rather complacent.  With that background, why was Leo Harting working there in the first place and how did he accumulate responsibilites beyond his security level?  Why are staff at the Embassy so uncooperative? And why does the Head of Security only seem concerned about retrieving the files; Harting’s safety being deemed irrelevant even when it becomes obvious that his disappearance is not what it first seemed.

Because – to put it bluntly – the British are hedging their diplomatic bets.

This is a Le Carré novel and in his universe, based, lest we forget, on his own experiences as a spy, the world of espionage is grubby and mucky. Never honourable. At best morally ambiguous.   This is not the high octane world of Ian Fleming.  There’s no glamour, no gadgets.  And Turner is certainly no Bond.

Neither for that matter is Leo Harting.  But the more Turner hears of Harting’s initially gentle, organ-playing, church-going persona, the more Turner realises how much outward appearances can deceive; that Harting is, in fact, “his untamed half”.  Turner suddenly recognises a fellow outsider, treated as contemptuously as himself, with enemies on both sides of the political fence. Once Turner comes to an understanding of Harting’s motives, it becomes imperative for him to find the man before his enemies can.

A Small Town in Germany isn’t a fast paced novel by any stretch of the imagination.  A goodly portion consists of series of chapters in which Turner interviews, insults amd offends various members of the British Embassy staff, and Le Carré paints cynical portraits of everyone and everything.  He is particularly scathing about British notions of class, exemplified in the embassy setting, and is very unflattering towards Bonn, although I found it quite charming.  (I suppose a spell of good weather helped my impression of the place.) Many pages are spent going nowhere, and the whole is infused with attitudes that have changed so much in the last 50 years.  (Or perhaps not …)  If ever there was a slow burner that repaid readerly patience, this is it.  Another Le Carré masterpiece.

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I read this book for the 1968 club hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck In A Book

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Translated from German by Peter Millar

After 1945 and 1946, the third part of my fictional exploration of post-war Hamburg reaches the bitterly cold winter of 1946 and the torridly hot summer of 1947, which seemed designed to inflict further suffering on the population of the devastated city.

The Murderer in Ruins, as ice-cold as the landscape,  is killing people and leaving their naked bodies amidst the rubble of Hamburg.  There are no identifying marks. Neither are there any reports of missing persons.  Not as strange as it sounds, given that Hamburg is full of displaced persons with little to no connection to the surviving home population.  The unfortunate chief inspector Stave is tasked with finding the killer, aided by the British officer, Lieutenant MacDonald, but where to start?

Based on a real case in which the four victims remained as unidentified as the killer, Rademacher’s novel reflects the frustration of a case with no leads, no clues in a city trying to reestablish the rule of  law.  After all, given recent body counts, what difference do 4 more bodies make?  The reader must be patient – very patient – as each assumed lead draws a blank.  But, as the author explained at Newcastle Noir, he has reconstructed the case fictionally in order to provide his own solution.  And so the resolution, in which the crimes of the present are inextricably linked with German crimes of the past,  depends on a chance observation ….

I admit, as a thriller, I struggled with the tortoise-like pace of the investigation, but, as a piece of historical fiction, I was bound by the detail of Rademacher’s reconstruction of post-war Hamburg and the psychologies of the characters. Stave, himself, is damaged goods, having lost his  wife in the fire-bombing of Hamburg, and his only son to the Nazis and the Eastern Front.  Despite their ideological estrangement, the father loves his son, desperately combing Hamburg main station for him whenever a train arrives with soldiers returning from the war.  His anxiety is palpable and can only increase when he discovers his son is a POW in Siberia ….

I found Stave a very sympathetic character.  Hamburg is, despite the weather, a hot bed of vice and black-marketeering, and he is a man who understands the importance of overlooking petty crimes to prevent being deflected from the main chase. However, racked with guilt about his wife, anxiety about his son, he is in need of a break. And in Anna, a mysterious aristocratic refugee and skilled black marketeer from East Prussia, it would appear he gets one.  It’s a relationship that seems destined for  greater things, if only he can forget that she tells him nothing of her past …

The exploration of East Prussia and the people who fled to avoid the “Ivans” is continued into the second novel of what will be a trilogy.  The Wolf Children is the collective name given to the mass of child refugees who flowed westwards.  Either orphaned or separated from their parents during the mass exodus at the end of the war, they lived a feral existence in Hamburg, learning to capitalise on opportunities presented by the black market or to engage in child prostitution.  They had their enemies and there was plenty of gang in-fighting,   So when the body of a teenage boy is found lying on top of an unexploded bomb in the harbour area of Hamburg, it is assumed that he is one of them.

Inspector Stave’s second case is a little easier than the first, in that he does at least identify the corpse.  Otherwise the waters are as murky as those of the Elbe, with his prospective Wolf Children witnesses being killed almost as soon as he has talked to them.

Once again I didn’t find the case as enthralling as the social history it explored. The identification of the murderer is quite well-signposted although the motivation for the boy’s killing would be utterly unbelievable if it wasn’t based on obscure historical fact. The things we do not know! Rademacher’s vision for these novels is greater than the murder mystery, and I would say that the scope of this second novel is to investigate the impact of war on the younger generations.  It is quite heartbreaking in places – no more so than in relation to Chief Inspector Stave’s son.

The war may be over but the repercussions are severe.  The world remains fractured, its logic twisted.  Why else could nothing and nobody function without the black market and what are the British occupation forces doing dismantling the remaining machinery at Hamburg docks?  This can hardly be called peace. Personal relationships are suffering also.  Like the temperatures of the summer of 1947, resentments are rising.  Where is this heading?  I can hardly wait for the third instalment!

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imageWinner of the 2014 Nordic Council Award
Translated from Swedish by Neil Smith

I was rooting for this novel to lift the Petrona Award (for best Scandi Crime novel) on Saturday night, but it was not to be.  All I can say is that the winner (which I will be making a beeline for) must be utterly fantastic because The Wednesday Club was one of the most satisfying reads of 2017 to date.

It’s not your standard crime novel. In fact, after the prologue, in which Claes Thune’s secretary, Matilda Wiik goes missing, there’s no mention of the police for another 300 pages! Instead the narrative rolls back eight months to describe the events leading up to the disappearance.

Set in Helsinki 1938, following the Austrian Anschluss, it documents the unrest and tensions arising in Finland through the eyes and attitudes of Claes Thune’s fellow members of the Wednesday Club, a group that meets once a month to drink lots of liquor (!) and to debate issues of the day. Long-standing friendships mean that there is no rancour when disagreements arise. It is very civilised. For the sake of the group, Thune even swallows his pride when one of them runs away with his wife! And yet at this critical point in time, political attitudes are diverging and hardening. The group’s cohesion begins to weaken, and division becomes inevitable.

This group of gentlement works as a microcosm of society. There are Nazi sympathisers, supporters of appeasement, adherents of resistance and others, like Claes Thune who seem to be as bemused politically as he is personally. Hoping for the best. And there is the Jew, Joachim Jary, destined to be the victim, not only because of his race, but because of his chronic depression. His illness enables a disquietening discussion on the Nazi rationale for euthanasia of the disabled.

All of which is not necessarily specifically Finnish. The novel becomes so through the revelations of Mrs Wiik’s history. She’s a woman with a past she would love to forget and keen to keep secret. Why? Because 20 years previously she was on the wrong side of history, finding herself on the losing Red side of the Finnish Civil War. Even now this counts against her even though she was punished for it at the time with internment in a concentration camp, where unspeakable things happened to her. Yet her memories flood back, when she hears the voice of her persecutor on the night she works late to deliver drinks to the Wednesday Club.

And while she recognises him, he doesn’t recognise her, leaving the way free for her to plan a leisurely revenge. The identity of the man and how Mrs Wiik’s intends to revenge herself are the mysteries at the heart of this novel, both solved, along with her disappearance, only in the final 5 pages.

I didn’t see any of it coming, possibly because I found the historical revelations alongside their warnings for our future fascinating; the characterisation equally so.  Westö’s characters are not ciphers, one dimensional representations of political viewpoints; they are fully human with the capacity to surprise, by acting in ways contrary to their utterances.

So even though I now know the outcome, this is a historical crime novel with sufficient depth to fully repay a reread or two.  It is, in summary, quite brilliant!

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hour of the jackalWinner of the 2011 German Prize for Crime Fiction
Translated from German by John Brownjohn

Lack of evidence ensured that no-one was ever successfully prosecuted for the 1989 political assassination of pro-independence, anti-apartheid activist, Anton Lubowski. Even if the identities of the killers were known.

In The Hour of the Jackal, Jaumann imagines what would happen, if decades after the event, someone decides that justice must finally be served. A merciless, brutal assassin begins to take out Lubowski’s killers. It is a race against time for he is, himself, terminally ill.

The detective, Clemencia Garises, makes the connection between the victims after the second killing and seeks to contact the other men the hit list. Yet she is obstructed by both by the lack of urgency in her own force and by influential others: the retired judge of the failed trial and her own superiors. She would make no headway if she didn’t have the help of a German journalist, whose interest in her is a little more than professional.

Clemencia is a dedicated officer with trials of her own. In an inversion of the usual trope, it’s not that she has no family, rather that she has too much. She shares the two-roomed home, paid-for entirely by her, with her two children and her extended family, including two meddlesome, match-making aunts. (They love the journalist, by the way.) Clemencia’s only demand that she has a room of her own. The sometimes comic tribulations of Clemencia at home contrast sharply with the serious and life-threatening problems of the case, which is dark, violent and steeped in the murky politics of the late-80’s.

The novel includes a portrait of Namibia itself, a vast country with dust-track roads and a climate of extremes. Changeable with sudden storms – just like the plot. Clemencia’s family life  allows the author to inject local colour, and is reminiscent of Alexander McCall-Smith’s Ladies Detective Series, although Clemencia is no Madama Ramotswe. Jaumann’s assassin has much in common with Frederick Forsyth’s jackal, and I’m sure the title is no accidental homage. Like Forsyth’s jackal, Jaumann’s is hunting real people, with uncamoflagued identities.  Given that they weren’t convicted of the crime in reality, and some were still living when Jaumann named them here, the author isn’t compromising in any way. Unlike his detective, who finds herself fighting to save the lives of men whose values she loathes. It makes for a most interesting dilemma.

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This post is part of a series in which I investigate the German Krimi, guided by Katharina Hall’s Crime Fiction in German. Jaumann’s novel is discussed in more detail in chapter 5: Der Afrika-Krimi (Crime Novels set in Africa).

 

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Translated from French by Jean Stewart

When people talk about a policeman’s flair, or his methods, his intuition, I always want to answer:

“What about your shoemaker’s flair, or your baker’s.”

Both of these have gone through years of apprenticeship. Each of them knows his job and everything concerned with it.

The same is true of a man from the Quai des Orfėvres.

This is Maigret speaking, emphasising that his astonishing expertise has been hard won through experience.  These memoirs include the years of his apprenticeship spent transferring from squad to squad learning to recognise the certain signs you cannot mistake that are associated with criminal activity and that make solving a crime so much easier – a matter of process if you will.

To know the milieu in which a crime has been committed, to know the way of life, the habits, morals, reactions of the people involved in it, whether victims, criminals, or merely witnesses.

The point is well made through case studies, and one I would do well to remember, because I have put my reading of Simenon’s series on hold after 10 novels due to frustration at the Inspector’s seeming omniscience.  Not that Maigret has penned his memoirs in response to me.  No, he has taken exception to this chap called Sim (later Simenon), an impertinent individual who showed up one day in 1927 or 1928 at the station with permission to shadow him, promising to use in his novels only what he may see or hear … in a format sufficiently altered to create no difficulties.

Except, of course, there were difficulties. Simenon used Maigret’s name, made him famous and caught him in a mesh from which he never managed to escape.  Did Simenon’s Maigret copy from the “real” Maigret or has the “real” Maigret adopted the mannerisms of Simenon’s creation? It’s enough to make a grown man grumble or  alternatively, resort to the pen in order to set matters straight!

In a hugely enjoyable metafictional conceit, Inspector Maigret takes his creator to task over the depiction of his fictional self! In the course of which he includes the charming story of  his relationship with Madame Maigret – how they met, the first few years of their marriage, and her editorship of these memoirs.  Plus the all important settling of differences between author and Inspector to form the friendship/partnership that produced 75 novels, even if they are according to the Inspector, not entirely accurate. (Best give him the last word today, I think.)

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It’s fair to say that David Young hit the ground running.  His debut, Stasi Child won the 2016 CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger. This sets quite a challenge for his second, Stasi Wolf, released today.

The novels are set in 1970s in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) – the mid-life,  as it turned out, of the short-lived state. At that time the GDR was as stable as it was going to be.  Its institutions had been established with the Stasi firmly in control.  Oberleutnant Müller  and her deputy, Unterleutnant Werner Tilsner, are Volkspolizei, criminal police,  free to investigate their cases without hindrance, provided the Stasi doesn’t impose constraints.  Which of course they inevitably do, because nothing must come to light that tarnishes the reputation of the socialist state.

So Müller has her hands tied behind her back in both cases. In the first, the case of the dead teenager whose bullet-riddled corpse is found lying in the snow facing away from the Wall, thus looking as though she was shot trying to escape from the West. Müller’s remit is to identify the body, not the perpetrator. Of course this stinks of a Stasi cover-up, but who are they protecting?  In the second, the case of snatched twins in Halle-Neustadt, she must find the babies without instigating house-to-house (or rather flat-to-flat) searches. The populace of the GDR’s flagship building project must not be unsettled.  But where traditional detective work is forbidden, creative methods must be deployed ….

Running parallel to the investigation in both novels is a first-person narrative, the purpose of which is provide background of the circumstances leading up to the crimes Müller is investigating.  These narratives are effective in adding depth, and take both novels beyond the police procedural. In Stasi Child this narrative starts 9 months earlier at a youth reform centre on the island of Rügen, a place of where sadistic brutes were free to inflict unfathomable psychological and physical torment.  In Stasi Wolf, the second narrative begins some 10 years previously.  The narrator is Franzi, a somewhat simple-minded woman who documents the struggles she and her husband have had in having children.  The convergence of the investigations and these stories accelerates the pace, resulting in an almost breathless rush to read to the end.

What I would say though is that the ending of Stasi Wolf is physically impossible. (I know from experience.) I’m happy to swallow the convenient connections to Müller’s private life for the sake of plot, but the final chase to Oberhof was the point my credulity snapped.  There are other seemingly improbable events in these novels, though most turn out to be based on historical facts. Young has researched meticulously and the atmosphere and daily life in the socialist state are convincingly brought to life.  I particularly love the sense of place, whether that be cold war Berlin, Halle-Neustadt, the Isle of Rügen, Oberhof in the Thüringian Forest, or Brocken in the Harz Mountains.

While Stasi Wolf is an excellent follow-up, Stasi Child is an exceptional 5-star thriller. There’s a pervading sense of menance which accompanies the Stasi officer, Jäger (the Hunter), which is missing for most of the second novel.   An arch-manipulator, he plays everyone in Stasi Child, including Müller,  in both her professional and her private lives. Jäger takes great delight in telling her about his professional oneupmanship but Müller has yet to understand the extent of the betrayal with regard to her husband.  I’m calling this The Great Secret.  If Müller ever learns it, will she continue to swallow the party line for the sake of the state?

One final point.  That final phrase sequence in Stasi Child.   Never has anything chilled me more.  Brrrrrrr.

 

 

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