Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Germany’

Bad Wolf by Nele Neuhaus

November 23, 2014 1 comment

Bad Wolf by Nele Neuhaus

Bad Wolf by Nele Neuhaus (Minotaur Books, 2014) (translated by Steven T Murray) sees a return for Chief Detective Inspector Pia Kirchhoff and Detective Oliver von Bodenstein who are senior officers in Hofheim’s Police Department. I should note the repeat of an appalling practice by the publisher. This is quite a long-running series from an initially self-published, now leading, German author. In their wisdom, the first book published in english was Snow White Must Die and this is the second. In fact, the first book was Swimming With Sharks which saw the light of day in 2005. If you go back to the original German bibliography, Snow White Must Die and Bad Wolf were respectively the fourth and sixth books. There’s also an english version of The Ice Queen so those of you who want to catch up can begin to do so. One of the reasons why people read series is their growing interest in the major characters and their lives. Although each book is focused on a single investigation, there’s a metanarrative which has continuing arcs for many different characters both major and minor. We have therefore been denied the chance to watch the evolution of these characters over the whole series. This is the same problem that blighted the Harry Hole novels.

At a early point in this book, we meet Frank Behnke, a colleague of Pia’s who was disgraced and has now returned as a member of Internal Affairs, determined to exact revenge. We also get a quick introduction to Hanna Herzmann. She’s a television personality who runs a form of investigative journalism show which, if she’s able to acquire the information, has not been afraid to take on bigger stories. Her ambition, however, first seen in Snow White Must Die, the first published in the english version of the series, is going to lead her to take on more than she can chew. The police investigation is triggered by the discovery of a body floating close to the Eddersheim locks courtesy of some teens who were drinking themselves insensible on the river banks. It’s immediately clear she’s been the victim of physical abuse for years. It’s not just the bruises, but the malnourishment and general lack of care suggesting she’s been held a captive for many years. From this brief introduction, you will realise this book is not for everyone. Thematically, we’re dealing with the abuse of children and the network of individuals who trade in them. Although the book is not overly explicit, it nevertheless does not flinch from descriptions which some readers may find distressing.

Nele Neuhaus

Nele Neuhaus

Structurally, the book has multiple points of view and, for the first part of the book, it’s a little difficult to keep track of who everyone is. Obviously, the longer you read, the more clear the links become between the different individuals, but there’s quite a large cast to accommodate and the plot itself is quite complicated. Adding to the resistance to a smooth reading experience is the denseness of the prose. This is not a criticism of the translation as such. Some books are written with a mass of detail about most of what characters see and experience. This book does require some commitment to get through the opening sections. However, once we emerge into the central section where the investigation gets into its stride, the pace begins to pick up and we have an ending which is both reasonably dramatic and fairly realistic in that the establishment closes ranks and the outcome of the investigation is merely an inconvenience to the remainder of the abusers. We only have to look at the way in which investigations in Britain have been manipulated and suppressed when powerful individuals have been threatened with exposure. For all we like to believe we live in civilised societies in which abuse is always forcefully investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice, the practical reality is that members of Parliament, the judiciary, and senior businessmen have always managed to avoid exposure. We even had to wait until he died before Jimmy Savile’s serial sexual abuse could be exposed. The same happens in Germany and whether you want to read about this in Bad Wolf is a choice only you can make.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel

July 1, 2014 2 comments

The Murder Farm by 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.

Andrea Maria Schenkel

Andrea Maria Schenkel

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.

A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor

April 25, 2014 1 comment

A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor

Here we find ourselves pitched into an increasingly confident area of historical mystery. The conventional mystery or thriller writer picks a time of relative calm as the setting. This leaves the history as contextual background information, with the foreground free for the hero to investigate the wrongdoing. But some authors prefer times of great conflict as the setting, and the period just before, during, and after World War II is proving a fruitful area for authors to explore. J. Robert Janes has a long-running series set in Occupied France featuring Hermann Kohler of the Gestapo and Jean-Louis St-Cyr of the French Sûreté. The interest, of course, lies in the question of whether St-Cyr is a collaborator and therefore worthy of contempt, or does he earn some latitude because he pursues wrongdoers regardless of nationality or status? Philip Kerr also has a long-running series featuring Bernie Gunther, a homicide detective. The first book starts in 1936 at the time of the Olympics, then moves forward to 1938 with him given the temporary rank of Kriminalkommissar in Heydrich’s state Security Service, and later moves into the war years and the period immediate afterwards. Luke McCallin has his second book featuring Captain Gregor Reinhardt coming out later this year and J Sydney Bounds has one book set in post-war Nuremberg, see Ruin Value.

A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014) is the third book in the series featuring Martin von Bora, an officer in the Wehrmacht who continues to work with Italian police inspector Sandro Guildi (in the first book, Bora is teamed with Father John Malecki, a Polish-American priest working directly for the Vatican). The consistent themes through the three books are dark and complex. First in Poland and then the two remaining books in Italy, we’re required to think about how different groups form and maintain alliances. Standing slightly outside the more conventional political power structure, there’s the overarching relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Third Reich. As part of the plan to deChristianise Germany, catholics had been specifically targeted which led to the increasing marginalisation of catholics during the 1930s. However, the relationship with the Papal See was complicated when Italy formally joined the Axis. As Germany began its expansion across national borders, it immediately found itself having to hold areas still deeply religious. As if invasion was not hard enough for the occupied people to stomach, it would further antagonise locals if priests were arrested and the people were prevented from worship.

Ben Pastor

Ben Pastor

Much of this book is taken up with Germany’s difficulty in reconciling its presence in Italy with the entrenched power of the Pope and his cardinals. Bora is a useful honest broker because he’s a trusted catholic whose university study was guided by a man now serving as a cardinal. This book is set in 1944 as the Allies are pressing their advance through Italy towards Rome. So the alliance with the Italian Fascists is failing as patriotic fervour dims in line with military failures. The relationship between the Wehrmacht and the SS is also strained as the practice of retaliating for German deaths by executing multiples of local citizens is encouraging the emergence of increasingly confident resistance fighters. Final efforts to deport Jews and others deemed socially undesirable are also producing real political disagreements between the different groups. It would be a serious understatement to call this a time of danger and uncertainty. And Ben Pastor does not make the mistake of leaving these events in the background. In many senses, this is a work of military fiction or a political thriller which just happens to feature an army officer who gets sucked into investigating politically sensitive deaths.

The initial hook for the investigators is the death of Magda Reiner who worked in the German Embassy as a secretary. She was found dead on the pavement outside her apartment block. It could have been suicide, but the Roman Chief of Police prefers that a political opponent be guilty of her murder. Much later there’s what may be a murder-suicide with a society lady well-known for her charitable works found dead in bed with an elderly cardinal. Obviously all three deaths are sensitive albeit for different reasons. As a serving officer, Bora is already deeply committed to defending what Germany holds in Italy. The investigations must therefore be fitted around his military duties. He’s also conscious of the fact that Germany will lose this fight and be forced out of Rome. If Guildi is positively involved in this investigation, he may be damned when the Allies take over and the locals can take their revenge against known collaborators. Independently, Guildi finds himself walking a narrow line through the infighting between the Italian factions as the Communists begin to take a more active role. In the end he will be faced with the difficult decision of whether to risk staying in Rome as the Allies arrive, or going north with the partisans.

A Dark Song of Blood is a powerful novel about lives under pressure. With every individual wondering whether he or she will be able to survive, it falls to the few with a conscience and a sense of honour to defy the prevailing power structures and do what they believe to be right. Bora has been emotionally scared and physically damaged. He’s no longer fit for active duty on the front line and so finds himself fighting a different type of war both with himself and many of those around him. As the novel progresses, he proves to be a proactive survivor, i.e. once he realises he’s falling into the pit, he decides to fall with as much force as possible and hope to produce at least one small change for the better before he dies. The outcome for Rome as a city is a matter for history. The different outcomes for Bora and Guildi are completely fascinating, making this a genuinely impressive novel.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

%d bloggers like this: