There are few crime fiction aficionados who would deny that one of the most significant German crime writers was a coruscating talent who died far too young. Achieving literary success at the precipitate age of twenty is not always the soundest of moves, but Jakob Arjouni (1964-2013) parlayed it into a highly successful career, leaving behind an impressive corpus of novels at his death at the age of forty-eight (the similarly short-lived Stieg Larsson at least reached half a century). Arjouni’s books included five quirky private-eye novels featuring Kemal Kayankaya, his Turkish detective working in Frankfurt, most notably Happy Birthday, Turk!, written in 1987 and filmed in 1992, and translated into English by Anselm Hollo.
When Sebastian Fitzek’s novel Therapy (translated by Sally-Ann Spencer) dislodged The Da Vinci Code from the number-one position in the German book charts, attention began to be paid to a writer (born in 1971) who was clearly doing something unusual, shaking up the psychological crime genre and producing something rich and strange. Subsequent books by Fitzek have maintained an upward trajectory, including The Eye Collector (translated by John Brownjohn, 2013). This writer is particularly interested in the ways in which crime leaves scars on the human soul.
Volker Kutscher (born in 1962), author of the sprawling Babylon Berlin series (successfully adapted for television and translated by Niall Sellar), told me that he did not choose Weimar Germany for his work, but Weimar Berlin. ‘This is a topic that has fascinated me since I read Erich Kästner’s children’s book Emil and the Detectives,’ said Kutscher. His own books are about the sometimes golden, sometimes roaring twenties in Berlin and how they came to an end. ‘And they are also about the first strongly functioning democracy in Germany,’ he continued. ‘About its strengths, its weaknesses, and – finally – its tragic reality. Babylon Berlin is about Western values and how important it is to defend them against their enemies. Freedom and democracy are something we have to fight for.’
There are other notable names in the world of the Krimi, such as Ingrid Noll (German, but born in 1935 in Shanghai). Noll was a late starter, publishing her first novel aged fifty. Her signature book is the compelling The Pharmacist (translated by Ian Mitchell). The film adaptation was nominated for a German film award.
Equally lauded is the writer Ferdinand von Schirach, born in Munch in 1964, who also trained and practised as a lawyer. This author is a scion of the blue-blooded West Slavic Schirach family, and is one of Germany’s most successful crime writers. His books have been translated into more than thirty-five languages, though he is less widely read in the UK than he should be. His 2009 book Crime (translated by Carol Brown Janeway), based on cases from his chamber, stayed on the Spiegel bestseller list for fifty-four weeks.
There are other writers well worthy of attention who are as yet largely unknown in Britain, including the very adroit author of detective stories Mechtild Borrmann (born in 1960 in Cologne), whose distinctive work won the 2012 Deutscher Krimi Preis.
With dark literary talents such as these from the past and the present, the Krimi is something that Germany can justly be proud of.
By Barry Forshaw
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Barry Forshaw‘s books include Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, the Keating Award-winning Brit Noir, Nordic Noir, Death in a Cold Climate, Sex and Film and the British Crime Writing encyclopedia (also a Keating Award winner). He edits Crime Time.