The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel
The moment you pick up The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel (Quercus, 2014) translated by Anthea Bell, your eyes are assaulted by a wall of praise. It starts with the usual deathless prose from The Times of London, “Like, wow man! Far out!” or words to that effect, closely followed by the pack of British critics snapping at the heels of what they unanimously declare to be an international bestseller sans pareil. It makes the likes of me, Johnnies-come-lately viewing this as a prospective launch into the US market, feel somewhat redundant. Indeed, I’m briefly seized by a moment of reverse psychology, predisposing myself to find the British establishment favoring elitist prose and literary fiction to the detriment of mass appeal. With a heavy heart, I pick this up, relieved it’s relatively short.
The book is based on the Hinterkaifeck murders which took place in 1922, but relocates the killing in time to 1955. We’re set in Tannöd, a West German village still struggling to adjust to life after the end of the war. So many of the men have been killed or returned “damaged”. Farming has always been a hard life and not suited to men coming newly to the land. This leaves many of the older farmers under serious pressure until a new generation can grow to an age where they can take over responsibility for keeping the family inheritance as a going commercial concern. The problem, of course, is the lure of the cities. Manufacturing is beginning to reestablish itself and this lures many of the younger people away. They fear the drudgery of farming and find the idea of better paid factory work more attractive.
Against this background, there’s a terrible murder at a remote farmhouse. An entire family and the newly arrived maid are battered to death with a pickaxe handle. A visiting journalist collates interviews and rumours gleaned during his visit to the village. People are inclined to talk unguardedly with a man they do not know and who will not stay. The resulting patchwork of information is elegantly structured to take us into the heart of the mystery of who would commit this terrible crime while interweaving a third-person narrative from the only person who can say what actually happened. The result is grimly fascinating as the picture of the family killed slowly comes into focus. It’s not a pretty picture and some may prefer not to read a story which catalogues such systematic abuse. The fact such behaviour was tolerated in a small community says a great deal about the times and the tendency of small groups of people under severe economic pressure to worry more about their own affairs than interfere in the troubles of others.
Putting all this together, I arrive at a slightly equivocal conclusion. Because the structure is a collage of fragments, there’s no chance to get to know or empathise with any of the people whom we meet on this journalistic excavation into the past. Rather, as Michel Foucault suggests, we see the contents of documents as having no more significance than the silences revealed by what the documents do not say. Indeed, it’s the lacunae that, in the end, speak the most eloquently through inference. So The Murder Farm is a short book one admires for its cleverness and its ability to so carefully disclose the psychology of all the interested parties. But it’s not a book one reads as a mystery or thriller offering a white-knuckle ride. On that basis, I recommend it for those interested in dispassionately deconstructing criminal motivations in a historical setting. Indeed, the themes are probably sufficiently universal to transcend time. We still turn a blind eye to domestic abuse and prefer not to interfere in the lives of our neighbours, no matter how awful they are. There may be lessons in this book for all of us.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.