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.