Reference Book to Treasure: Crime Fiction in German (Der Krimi)

crimeficgermanIf you have any interest at all in German literature or in crime fiction, you will enjoy leafing through this erudite and yet still very readable collection of articles. Or, if you are slightly obsessed like myself, you will read it from cover to cover and then start all over again. And I’m not just saying that because I was flattered to receive an electronic proof copy by the University of Wales Press. It is that rarest of creatures: an academic study which is also very enjoyable and could become a bestseller!

What is remarkable about the book is the breadth and depth of topics it covers. In terms of breadth, no stone is left unturned. The editor Katharina Hall (known to many crime fiction fans as Mrs. Peabody from her much-loved blog) and the other contributors cover not just the obvious subject areas (West German, East German, Austrian and Swiss crime fiction), but also lesser-known categories such as women’s crime writing, historical crime fiction, the place of Africa in German crime fiction and even television dramas. Furthermore, the definition of crime fiction itself is deliberately broad, and includes literary authors writing crime-infused experimental or social novels (Hans Fallada, Peter Handke, Elfriede Jelinek) as well as more traditional crime.

In terms of depth, you will find here not only comprehensive overviews of the development of crime fiction in each of the German-speaking countries, as you might expect from an academic tome, but also a focus on specific writers or books. Martin Rosenstock’s analysis of Dürrenmatt, for instance, is beautifully nuanced, pointing out how the Swiss author breaks all the classic formulas of the crime genre, whilst also poking fun at the self-aggrandising Swiss myths of neutrality, wealth and historical heritage.

Each chapter (or article) is followed not only by endnotes and a select bibliography of books (mostly those available in translation), but also recommendations for further secondary reading. Where no English translations are available for a work cited, there is a small extract in English at the end of the chapter as well, just enough to give you a flavour of the original and whet your appetite for more. This is also one of the stated aims of the book: ‘to provide readers with a springboard for further reading, viewing and research’. There is also an excellent table at the front with the chronology of crime fiction in German, including political, criminal and publishing milestones from 800 until the present day.

I will not attempt a blow-by-blow account of each topic, but allow me to highlight just a few.

Viennese tram. No relation to the book, but couldn't resist smuggling in that photo.
Viennese tram. No relation to the book, but couldn’t resist smuggling in that photo.

I may be slightly prejudiced in favour of Austrian writers, but I certainly appreciate the article on the odd humour and often extreme experimentation by Austrian authors, written by Marieke Krajenbrink, and have already ordered several books from her list of recommendations.

Thanks to an article Katharina Hall agreed to write for Crime Fiction Lover, I had previously experienced her encyclopedic knowledge of crime fiction dealing with different aspects or periods in German history (mostly the Nazi period and the reunification of the country after the Cold War). It was a pleasure, however, to read a more thorough analysis of the topic, as well as a detailed discussion of two fantastic (and very different) novels: Fallada’s Alone in Berlin and Simon Urban’s Plan D.

Finally, I cannot forget the fascinating articles which open up an entirely new world to me: Julia Augart’s analysis of the so-called Afrika-Krimi and Faye Stewart’s research on the Frauenkrimi (women crime writers). I had never heard of the first as a subgenre, and never stopped to compare the themes and styles of male and female German crime novelists.

In conclusion, either this book is a great exception to the rule, or else academic books have evolved considerably since my time, because I find it very approachable indeed. It achieves that wonderful balance between ‘speaking to ordinary readers’ without ‘dumbing down’. I’ve learnt something new in every single chapter and yet, try as I might, I can’t find any pretentious or obscure references which so often plague literary criticism. I was hoping for some Lacan or Foucault or at least Wittgenstein to throw my arms up at, but no! It stays admirably grounded throughout.

Congratulations to all the contributors and editors involved in this project. There is nothing quite like it in the English language. I will certainly treasure it and return to it as a work of reference for many years to come.

Traumatic Memories: David Young’s Stasi Child

stasichildDavid Young’s new series set in 1970s East Germany just about qualifies as historical crime fiction, but the history is so recent that the scars are still prone to reopen and suppurate. Personally, I found this book quite an emotionally draining experience (some things were just too familiar, even though I did not grow up in East Germany but in another Soviet satellite state). But for those who have a sufficient distance from the events, it is a thrilling and entertaining tale. The background feels quite fresh, as it’s not been used too much in crime fiction to date.

Young takes a number of historical facts, such as political prisoners making IKEA furniture in East Germany, repatriation agreements for under-16s between the West and the East, the Stasi turning family members against each other, youth work camps for ‘difficult’ children and escape tunnels to the West, and spins an enthralling and claustrophobic tale out of them. If anything, one might reproach the author with trying to tackle too many of the grim GDR realities at once, throwing everything plus the kitchen sink at this story, a common enough failing with debut authors. He does, however, blend the multiple storylines quite skilfully, and there is no arguing with the sinister atmosphere of paranoia and fear which he creates.

Karin Müller is everywoman – as her name (a very common German name) indicates – a police officer trying to survive in a tough world. She gets roped into a strange investigation into the death of a young girl in the no-man’s land around the Berlin Wall. It appears the youngster was trying to escape from the West to the East – almost unheard of at the time. So why is the Stasi getting involved, are they trying to cover up something? Karin feels increasingly uncomfortable about Jäger – her Stasi superior – and his interference in the investigation, nor is she sure she can trust her partner Tilsner, despite the strong physical attraction she feels for him. Finally, she feels guilty about her husband Gottfried, a good man, a teacher with Western sympathies, from whom she feels more and more estranged. The author does an excellent job of conveying that feeling of helplessness, of not being able to trust anyone, which was a permanent fixture of Communist dictatorships.

Berlin, Germany, 19th November, 1961, East Berlin border guards adding barbed wire to the newly built Berlin Wall, The wall was set up the Soviet army to prevent refugees escaping from the Soviet sector in the East to West Berlin (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)
Berlin, Germany, 19th November, 1961, East Berlin border guards adding barbed wire to the newly built Berlin Wall, The wall was set up the Soviet army to prevent refugees escaping from the Soviet sector in the East to West Berlin (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

There are some elements which stretch belief here (the tricks which Karin and her team have to resort to at times, the lengths to which she is prepared to go for the sake of the investigation), but overall it’s a cracking little thriller, with a fantastic cover to boot. I’ve also heard it’s been recently optioned for a TV series – and it does sound perfect for that, so here’s hoping it gets made.

Women in Translation Month: Judith Schalansky

WITMonth15Bibliobio is organising another Women in Translation Month this year, a challenge with very few prescriptions other than to read as many women authors as possible. I’m reading plenty and I hope to review a good fair few. Today we’re heading over to Germany. I read this book in the original, but it has been translated very skillfully into English by Shaun Whiteside, published by Bloomsbury.

schalanskyJudith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe (The Neck of the Giraffe)

Inge Lohmark is a biology and sports teacher in a ‘Gymnasium’ (selective state school, grammar school equivalent) in a provincial town in what was once East Germany. The town is dying, as is the school, forced to close soon because of lack of pupils. Everyone dreams of escaping from that claustrophobic place to search for jobs or a better life, including Inge’s own daughter, who has been living in the States for the past 10-12 years.

Inge, however, is inflexible and judgemental. She believes in the survival of the fittest and refuses to intervene in bullying incidents. Although she teaches biological adaptation, she is unwilling to alter any of her principles and firmly-held beliefs herself. Short shrift, military in style, believing any display of emotion or affection to be a weakness, her style is perfectly captured with the short, staccato sentences, often without verbs, like barked orders. She is the teacher we all feared and loved to hate or mock at school.

Her story is in many ways the story of my parents’ generation, for whom the fall of Communism came too late and who will never be able to adapt to a new world they do not understand nor like very much. Because of my own experience with recalcitrant relatives who live in a nostalgia of a life that never really was the way they remember it, I have more patience for Inge than most readers would. Many of her acerbic observations of modern life and young students will strike a chord, perhaps provoke a wry smile of recognition. She is also a profoundly lonely person, barely sharing a word with her husband – who is immersed in his ostrich farm – and rarely engaging in conversations with her colleagues or neighbours, unless they become arguments or point-scoring exercises.

Example of illustrations from the book.
Example of illustrations from the book.

The book is presented entirely from Inge’s point of view and I have to admit that I would have liked to see her through the eyes of others at some point. There are also plenty of digressions about the animal kingdom and evolution theory, with some beautiful illustrations. These digressions are quite interesting and (of course) symbolical, albeit not always in the way Inge thinks of them, but they do become repetitive after a while. Nor is there much in the way of a plot, other than being a witness to Inge’s increasingly disturbing thought processes, which do not really translate into any major action. Finally, my main bone of contention is that Inge has not really learnt or changed as a character, there has been no development as such (and we learn next to nothing of the other characters). For a Bildungsroman, there was remarkably little ‘Bildung’ (learning).

I thought it was well-written and an interesting love-hate elegy for a lost world. Inge is remarkably clear-eyed about the GDR society and ideology as well. I thought it did a great job of giving voice to a thoroughly difficult, unlikeable and yet pitiable character. But, blame my shrinking attention span or my love for crime fiction, I did feel this book was too long at 200 pages. I think all the points would have come across, the character would have been fully described in a novella half that length.