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Archive for the ‘crime / spy / thriller’ Category

 

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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I’m taking a different approach to literary festivals this year.  Pre-festival I’m going to read some of the books I’ve bought in previous years.  That way new festival purchases won’t simply get added to the old ones, and the overall effect on the TBR should be a zero increase rate.  That’s the theory anyway.  I’ll test it out with Ayewrite! which is just one month away.

First up is the book I bought following one of the best events I’ve ever attended at Ayewrite. The year was 2015 and Chris Dolan chaired an event entitled My Era is better than Yours!  3 authors were asked to pitch their chosen eras to the audience, which then voted on the one which appealed most.  The choice was between Tudor England (Rory Clements), The English Civil War (Michael Arnold) or Georgian England (Antonia Hodgson). I forget the way the public vote went but I came out and bought Antonia Hodgson’s debut, for which she won the 2014 CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger.

imageI was intrigued by a crime novel set in the notorious debtors’ prison, the Marshalsea. Not the Marshalsea brought to life in Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, but the previous iteration – a place where the governor was so violent, he could act with impunity, (whipping prisoners to death, chaining them to corpses as punishment, etc) because as long as the place made a profit, its aristocratic owner didn’t really care what went on behind the gates.

So how could anyone make a profit in a debtor’s prison?  Because the debtors had to pay for food and lodgings and any other services that might be rendered. If they couldn’t, they were removed from the gentleman’s area and thrown into The Common Side, a squalid hell on earth, where gaol fever  (typhus) ran rampant and survival was improbable.

When Tom Hawkins lands in the Marshalsea for a £10 debt, it is a place in crisis.  The recent death of debtor Captain Roberts has been deemed a suicide (although his hanged body bears evidence of a severe beating), and now his ghost haunts the place.  His widow remains in situ, determined to discover her husband’s murderer.  This is not good for the reputation of the prison’s aristocratic owner.  So when Tom, having made an enemy of the governor, finds himself almost at death’s door, he is happy to come to an arrangement with the authorities.  If he can identify Captain Roberts’s murderer, his debt will be repaid and he will find himself a free man once more.

Little does he know what he’s let himself in for ….

The danger to Tom’s life and limb in the Marshalsea is palpable – whether it be from smallpox or typhus, corrupt officialdom, government spies or his roommate , Samuel Fleet, widely suspected of being the murderer.  Not that I cared much for Tom at first.  He’s the malcreant son of a vicar, reaping what he has sown through wine, women and gambling. Though not yet entirely without conscience, he hasn’t forgotten the meaning of charity and loyalty.  Personal betrayal was not a word in his vocabulary, but 4 days in the Marshalsea will etch it on his soul forever.

While the plot is good, the historical detail is a masterclass.  Hodgson shows how the Marshalsea had a microcosmic economy of its own.  There were those who, having established successful businesses which enabled them to pay off their debt, chose to remain within the confines of the prison walls.   The mix of fictional and historical characters is interesting also: the governor and most of the wardens and lawyers were real enough and their histories are included in an appendix.  So too was the infamous Moll King, mistress of the den of iniquity  coffee house Tom chose to frequent, which featured in the painting Morning by William Hogarth. That’s the world waiting for Tom, should he escape the Marshalsea: dirty, ribald, just as immoral and treacherous.  Hodgson paints the reality of that Hogarthian London too. It’s somewhat of an eye-opener to say the least!

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imageTranslated from German by Anthea Bell

Nominated for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award by the Salzburg City Library

*** Review contains mild spoilers ***

Eight years of married bliss are brought to an abrupt halt when Brünhilde Blum’s husband is killed in a hit and run. Mark was a policeman, working off-the-record on a case involving allegations of kidnap and torture of illegal refugees.  The woman, Dunya, making these claims had been written off as a fantasist by the police force, yet Mark felt otherwise.  Following his death, Blum listens to the recorded conversations between Mark and Dunya and becomes convinced that his death was not accidental.

She sets off to discover the identity of those Dunya knows only as the photographer, the priest, the huntsman, the cook and the clown to exact revenge, and the reader has no doubts whatsoever that she will be succeed. Because Blum is a dormant psychopath, having already avenged her tormented childhood on her adoptive parents – this episode forms the prologue.  She has the guts, the knowledge, and the wherewithall.

An undertaker,  there’s not much Blum doesn’t know about body disposal, so hiding the evidence isn’t a problem.  Nor is dispatching her prey, once located.  Her biggest problem is the father of the photographer, who suspects something malign has happened to his boy when he disappears without trace.  This thread adds the hunter is being hunted frisson to proceedings, because the police don’t have a clue that a serial killer is at large.

And yet Blum is a loving mother, a caring daughter-in-law and a genuinely grief-stricken wife. Cozy domestic scenes, interspersed throughout the book, are to be enjoyed, because the rest is brutal: the story of Blum’s childhood, that of the refugees, the revenge killings, the graphic and grisly dismembering of the corpses.  Plus an extra eek factor, which Blum reserves for the final scumbag.  This is not a novel for the faint-hearted.

I hesitate to say I enjoyed this, although I raced through it.  I certainly wanted justice to be done, but then I question whether I should have been empathising with such a bloodythirsty psychopath.  Or even with her nice-guy-but-dead-hubby.  Because there’s a secret revealed in the epilogue that shows him not to have been as honourable as we are led to believe ….

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Martin Rosenstock’s essay on Swiss Crime fiction in Crime Fiction in German discusses the works of Hansjörg Schneider and Urs Schaub as contemporary examples of the form.  As neither have been translated into English, I turned to Martin Suter, who won the Friedrich Glauser prize in 2007. Curiously his winning novel, Der Teufel von Mailand (2008) has yet to be translated.  So I started with The Last Weynfeldt, published in 2008, translated by Steph Morris, and finally published earlier this year  by New Vessel Press.

imageThe Last Weynfeldt is not, as I expected, the painting on the book jacket, but the protagonist, Adrian Weynfeldt, an art expert and a very rich bachelor in his mid-fifties.  Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he has been collecting and inheriting even greater wealth ever since.  Impeccably mannered, polite and good-natured, his money has protected him from the unsavoury ways of the world resulting in a naïvety that endears him to many and yet opens him to exploitation by more unscrupulous characters. He has many acquaintances from the younger generation of artistes and such like,  but as the novel progresses it becomes clear that they tolerate him only because he is happy to be finance their dinners, art projects, films, etc.  He knows this too, but remains happy to accommodate them.  Money really is no object to him and their communal dinners  at least provide him with some company.

A singleton following a tragic love affair in his youth, he is usually very circumspect when it comes to the opposite sex.  Yet all that is tossed to the wind when he meets Laura, an off-balance and unpredictable woman, who reminds him of his lost love.  You’d think the warning bells would sound when she threatens to throw herself off his balcony following their first night together. (You can read an excerpt about that here.)

Laura is a grifter and she keeps him at the end of a string, dancing to her tune.  When she enters into a partnership to blackmail Weynfeldt out of millions, it is hard not to worry on his behalf.  Whatever could she have on him to give her such ambitions?

This is where the painting comes in.  In a parallel development, Weynfeldt is approached by a family acquaintance to auction a painting for him.  The rub is the painting at the auction is most likely a forgery with Weynfeldt fully cognisant of the fact.  Why would a man of  Adrian’s integrity do such a thing risking his reputation and career, the only things that give his life meaning?  Has he fallen into the trap that has been set for him?

Suter pulls some lovely sleights of hand here with an obvious nod in the plot to Stefan Zweig’s The Invisible Collection. I also learned much about how to detect an art forgery, and I was really fearful for Adrian (as a result of Suter’s Zweig-like psychological analysis.) Thankfully the author had a denouement up his sleeve that still makes me chuckle.  It’s a brilliant ending to a gentle yet fascinating crime novel.

And I will definitely seek out more, if not all, of Suter’s oeuvre.

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And so to chapter 4 of Crime Fiction in German and Martin Rosenstock’s essay on the genesis of Swiss Crime fiction through Temme, Loosli, Glauser, Dürrenmatt to contemporary proponents of the form Hansjörg Schneider and Urs Schaub. (Authors in bold have been translated into English.)

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Translated by Joel Agee

When it came to my own reading for this chapter, I had to make a beeline, despite the horrendous book cover, for Dürrenmatt’s Inspector Balach’s Mysteries given the fulsome praise received from fellow #germanlitmonth bloggers Grant and Jacqui. However, going back through the #germanlitmonth annals, I note that Anthony was less keen.

Dürrenmatt’s Inspector Barlach is an old man approaching not only the end of his career, but also the end of his life.  Suffering from stomach cancer, he is in need of an urgent operation to give him an extra twelve months. This infuses the two novellas with an existentiality and a philosophical leaning that are more important than the plots.  What drives Barlach to continue despite his personal difficulties?  A good, old-fashioned belief in the necessity to execute justice.  What methods does he use? Good, old-fashioned gut instincts, which serve him well when his judgment is on top form.  Conversely they put him in great peril when he makes questionable decisions.

A young promising police officer is murdered in the Judge and His Hangman.  Barlach is assigned the case together with Tschanz. Barlach has a firm suspicion from the off, and Tschanz is offended that he will not share it.

If the person I suspect is, in fact the killer, you will find him in your own way – which, unlike mine, is impeccably scientific.  And if I’m wrong, you will find the right man, and there will have been no need to know the name of the person I falsely suspected.

And so the game begins, will Tschanz vindicate Barlach’s hunch or will new-fangled scientific methods disprove it? It is, of course, not quite that simple because in the course of the investigation, paths cross with an old adversary of Barlach’s – Gastmann, who once murdered a man in front of Barlach’s eyes, but Barlach could never prove it.  Knowledge is not enough to proesecute – nor is a hunch.  Empirical evidence is needed and Tschanz goes about seeking it and finally providing it, though not quite in the manner he envisaged.  And yes, Barlach’s hunch is vindicated.

My problem with this is that we don’t understand how that hunch was formed until the final denouement by which time it all feels a bit Holmesy or Poiroty i.e Barlach is a know-all  and it all feels a bit too convenient.

And I have even more problems with Suspicion, the stronger of the two novellas. While recovering from his surgery, Barlach comes across a picture of a Nazi doctor operating, without anaesthia, on a prisoner at Stutthof concentration camp.  Dr Nehle may still be practising at a private clinic as Dr Emmenberger.  Barlach sets about gathering evidence to prove that the two men are one and the same, amd once he is reasonably certain, he arranges for himself to be transferred to Dr Emmenberger’s clinic.

Quite what he hopes to accomplish there is beyond me – particularly in his weakened bedridden state, and without the backing of the police force (he has been retired due to ill health.)  But go he does and immediately falls into mortal peril.  Emmenberger knows he’s coming and what for (though it’s not explained how), and has no intention of letting his captive leave the clinic alive.  The second half of the novella is horrendously tense, due not only to Barlach’s impending death but to the intended method of dispatch.  Barlach will suffer the same torture as Nehle’s concentration camp internees ….

At this point I feel Dürrenmat becomes a victim of his own success, having written Barlach into such a tight corner, the only way out is by divine intervention – or something pretty similar.  I’m afraid my eyes rolled at the convenience and unreality of it.

It seems my mistake is to expect Dürrenmatt to stick to the narrow confines of his chosen genre.  Sven Birkerts in the Chicago Press introduction states that Suspicion is  a fairy tale that not even the dark-minded Brothers Grimm could have conjured on the page.  I can follow that because even the best heroes need some kind of fairy godmother to help them overcome the odds. Martin Rosenstock also points out that these mysteries, written in the 1950s, are morality tales set against Swiss feelings of vulnerability to Nazi infiltration. The inspector’s world-weary decency casts out the corrupted members of society and re-establishes a precarious moral order.  Seen in that light, I hope Dürrenmatt wasn’t saying that decency is living on borrowed time.  Convenient intervention notwithstanding, by the end page Barlach has only twelve months to live.

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My previous post inspired by Mrs Peabody’s overview of Crime Fiction in German discussed the controversy re the identification of the first crime story in world literature. (Clue: it wasn’t written by Edgar Allen Poe.)  Today I’m on firm ground as Augusta Gröner’s Detective Müller is the acknowledged first police detective in German crime fiction.

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Translated by Grace Isobel Colbron

While reading The Case of the Golden Bullet (1895) I was struck by how Joseph Müller’s  personality differed from his contemporary, Sherlock Holmes. (Refreshingly so – I simply cannot stand SH.)  The Secret Service Dectective of the Imperial Austrian Police is a humble-looking little man, with a modesty of disposition and expectation. He knows his place, but when he gets the scent, he is unstoppable and extremely skillful.  Yet as his chief acknowledges his peculiarity is that his genius -for the man has undeniable genius – will always make concessions to his heart just at the moment when he is about to do something great – and his triumph is lost.

All of that is evidenced in this case in which Müller links a death, previously categorised as suicide, to the death of a professor shot by the golden bullet. His name would be made and cleared of the cloud that has been hanging over him from the start of his career, but then his heart – in the shape of sympathy for his prey – gets in the way.

This is not the first time I have enjoyed meeting Joseph Müller.  The first time was 5 years ago – 5 years- how time flies when you’re buried in a blogger’s TBR.  Back then I said I enjoyed the traditional feel of the narrative and wanted to read a full length Müller novel.  After this second outing, I still do and I will.

I returned to Ursula Poznanski’s work much more promptly, after her YA thriller Erebos was narrowly pipped at the post for my read of 2015.  Five, published under the name Ursula P Archer in the UK (I would love to know why), is the only other work of her quite considerable oeuvre to have been translated into English.  (Again I would love to know why.)

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Translated by Jamie Lee Searle

Five is brilliant but gruesome and as far from Groner as is possible to imagine.  When I recommended the novel in this year’s #germanlitmonth announcement, I had forgotten quite how gruesome it was in places and have since worried that those who picked the novel up might have found it offputting.  My mind is now at ease as both Viv and Caroline both found the novel as compelling as I did.

What kept me reading past the grisly, though non-gratuitous, bits was the structuring of the novel around geocaching – a modern day form of treasure hunt. (More here.) The game begins, when a body is found with geographical coordinates tatooed onto the soles of her feet.  These coordinates are the location of the first geocache containing a body part and the coordinates to the next geocache.  Thereafter it gets more difficult with clues in the form of riddles leading to people, with no obvious connections, who are murdered once they have been identified. How are the detectives ever going to get one step ahead, particularly with the pace accelerating to the point of breathlessness in the second half.

Am I allowed to say that this is a seriously puzzling first case for Salzburg detectives Bea Kaspary and Florin Weininger, and one they and I are unlikely to forget. The use of technology and games, employed to such brilliant effect in Erebos, serves Poznanski well once more and she has certainly left this reader wanting more.  The good news is that there are two further volumes in this series, though neither has been translated.  Oh dear, I’m going to have to read them in German (not necessarily a bad thing.)

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Welcome to Krimi week at #germanlitmonth and to the next stop on my real life #gapyeartravels itinerary.  Yet, as one wanders round the haloed Goethe and Schiller infused streets of Weimar, a more unlikely place for dastardly deeds is hard to imagine.  And yet here we are with the final part of Köstering’s trilogy written in homage to Weimar and its most famous literary resident.

Part One, Goetheruh, centred around Goethe’s house in the Frauenplan with a plot based on Goethe’s poetry, in particular, the Erlkönig.  The Anna Amalia library and the very real fire of 2004 was the key site for book two, Goetheglut, with Goethe’s papers providing the necessary clues.  The heinous act in this final part takes place in that most iconic of Weimarian landmarks, the National Theatre with a plot based on Goethe’s play, Clavigo.

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Interesting decision to mirror the plot on one of Goethe’s less popular tragedies. (Plot synopsis in German here.  Listen to it in English here.)  How is such melodrama going to translate into a 21st century plot line?

imageMoving forward 3 years from the events of Goetheglut, we are now in Weimar in the late autumn. (The onion market –  the reason for October’s visit – has been and gone.) The premiere of a new production of Clavigo at the National Theatre is only a few days away,  when the leading actress disappears off the face of the earth, and her second is hospitalised with a mysterious illness.  Fortuitously a stand-in is on hand – the wife of the man whose recently applied unsuccessfully for the directorship of the theatre.

Reinhardt Liebrich doesn’t help avert the fingers of suspicion by being a “Machtmensch” – a person who exercises power, holding all of his submissive acolytes in thrall – including Hendrik Wilmut’s cousin and childhood friend, Benno.  Benno has suddenly decided that local politics in Weimar is too small-town for him and decides to run for mayor in Frankfurt am Main at the expense of his marriage, if need be.  His motivation puzzled me.  It’s not clearly explained – mid-life crisis? blackmail perhaps?  – but his decision to dump his wife, who refuses to leave Weimar for Frankfurt (as would I, given the choice), provides the central conflict in the novel.

Actually it’s best not to know too many details of Goethe’s Clavigo because Köstering sticks very closely to Goethe’s plot and once you start identifying the modern day equivalents of Goethe’s characters, then the victims of events to come are easily identifiable.  On second thoughts Köstering wants you to know who is who.  The alter-egos are clearly signalled and once the literary sleuth, Hendrik, is identified as Beaumarchais, the tragic hero who kills his best friend, Clavigo, the plot thickens.

Because espresso-addict and Goethe-connoisseur  Hendrik’s personality simply isn’t compatible with that outcome, but who knows what could happen given the intense provocation to which he is subjected ….

Köstering’s Weimar trilogy, particularly this third installment, isn’t in any way high-octane.  It’s a puzzle rather than a thriller.  Köstering describes his beloved Weimar in detail (charming even in the rain) and dwells on the foibles of his characters (spelling out perhaps a little too much. I swear if Hendrik had brewed just one more expresso …).  The mystery of the disappearing actress wasn’t as obvious to solve as I have made out above, but it still wasn’t difficult. The language is everyday German rather than literary.

And yet I did enjoy Köstering’s modern-day interpretation of Clavigo, particularly the casting of Frankfurt am Main as the evil metropolis.  (Hyperbole, my own.) Why?  Because Frankfurt just so happened to be the next destination on my #gapyeartravels. (To be continued.)

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