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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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I tried to resist, but I suppose it was inevitable given the programme.  Two events: one with three British authors writing historical crime fiction set in Germany, the second with three German crime fiction authors.  Both with the inimitable Mrs Peabody as chair.

So into the car I jumped and drove south to Newcastle upon Tyne, listening (finally) to Sascha Arango’s The Truth and Other Lies in preparation.  But then he was a no show – apparently he was needed on the film-set (which I suppose is good news in a way, because his novel is fantastic!)  His stand-in, Elisabeth Herrmann, never made it to Newcastle either due to a bomb scare at Berlin Tegel earlier in the day.  That second event turning into a logistical nightmare for the organisers … still 5 authors, Mrs Peabody and her delightful sidekick, Erich, the Bavarian duck did make it.  So a huge round of applause for them please. And another for the Goethe Institute, sponsors of the German Noir event.

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Erich takes a bow

But let’s start at the beginning.

Arriving at the Literary and Philosophical Society (the Lit&Phil) in Newcastle, I was surprised to find a smallish space in which authors mingled and chatted quite naturally with the attendees.  I spied David Young of Stasi Child/Stasi Wolf fame immediately and couldn’t resist introducing myself with the statement I’ve got something to show you.   Cue photos from mobile phone.

“Surely you didn’t read Stasi Wolf and then visit Halle Neustadt”, he asked. As it happens, I did, but only in broad daylight! (Admittedly I was in Leipzig for the book fair and Halle Neustadt was only a S-bahn ride away.)

imageThereafter, it was straight into the German historical crime fiction event, the panel consisting of David Young (series set in the GDR), Luke McCallin (series set in Nazi times), and William Ryan (series beginning in Stalinist Russia, latest novel set in Ausschwitz).  All three talked about the gold mine of a totalitarian regime – a setting that just keeps on giving was how William Ryan described it.  How can a detective ever hope to preserve truth and justice in times when parallel moralities are at play?

William Ryan talked of the photographic inspiration for The Constant Soldier, Luke McCallin of his fear of writing about Berlin (his first two novels are set in Sarajevo, where he lived for 6 years) and David Young of his need for escape from the BBC! All acknowledged Phillip Kerr for leading the way in writing historical crime fiction set in Germany, and Luke McCallin divulged his fantasy of Kerr’s Bernie Günther and his Gregor Rheinhardt appearing in each others works!

Why are German authors not writing historical crime set in National Socialist or GDR times?  “They say it is too early”, said Mrs Peabody, pointing out to David Young that Simon Urban’s Plan D, set in an alternate present, is his nearest competition  “Oh, there’s far too much internalisation in that novel”, replied David Young. “It could have been much better.”

Cue coffee and a good old chin wag with Mrs Peabody before she left to prepare for the second event ….  Turned out it was Wulf Dorn’s 1st UK event, and only Cay Rademacher’s 2nd!

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Cay Rademacher, Mrs Peabody and Wulf Dorn – courtesy of Mrs Peabody

Wulf Dorn was a psychiatric therapist before turning to crime writing.  He likes to explore the abyss of the human mind, using Friedrich Duerrenmatt as his role model.  His motivating factor is suspense, not blood and gore.  His novels have yet to be published in English (though I believe something may be in the pipeline), but all have a fantastic premise, said Mrs P. Then she asked:  “How do you come up with these?  Do you soak in the bath, go for long walks, or do you simply have a twisted imagination?”.  Wulf Dorn:  “If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.”

Cay Rademacher’s Inspector Stave series is available to English readers.  The Murderer in Ruins and The Wolf Children are set in post-war Hamburg.  Set in the cold, cold winter of 1947, the first is based on an unsolved case, reconstructed by Rademacher to provide a solution.  The second is set in the hot summer of 1948 which heralded the beginning of Germany’s economic miracle with the introduction of the German Mark. I intend reading  both when I visit Hamburg in June.

There was discussion about the popularity of the prologue in crime fiction, something authors are taught not to write.  Both authors agreed that the prologue has grown in popularity since the introduction of e-books.  These are now so cheap that a novel must have a hook in the first few pages to prevent readers moving straight onto the next one.

Time for audience questions:

From me:  Do you think that a crime novel will ever win the German Book Prize?  Both authors were adamant that it will never happen, (which is interesting given Marlon James’s success with the Booker Prize).

Another member of the audience asked for further German crime recommendations.  Works recommended were Volker Fischer – Babylon Berlin (in TBR), Melanie Raabe’s The Trap (best forgotten IMO), and Andreas Eschbach (new name to me and more science fiction than crime?)

With that a very interesting afternoon came to a close with lots of leads for further reading.  I made only one e-book purchase, deciding I couldn’t wait until Wulf Dorn’s work appears in English. When asked which novels should be translated first into English, he answered Phobia, which is set in London with the following premise.  A woman greets her husband when he comes home from work. He is wearing the clothes he went to work in and carries the same briefcase  … but he is not her husband.  Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? (To be continued.)

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