When we think of historical crime fiction set in Britain, it’s the distant past that springs to mind, such as C. J. Sansom’s Tudor-set Shardlake series, Ellis Peters’ medieval Brother Cadfael series or Susanna Gregory’s fourteenth-century Bartholomew series. By contrast, historical crime fiction from the German-speaking world tends to focus on the more immediate past.
German reunification in 1990 prompted a wide-ranging public discussion about the country’s uneasy double past of fascism and communism. Thirty years on, a boom in German-language crime fiction testifies to the enduring interest in those eras, and other key twentieth-century events. There is no shortage to choose from: the First World War, the collapse of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires, the Weimar Republic and the Great Depression, National Socialism and the Second World War, Allied Occupation, the division of Germany and the Cold War, the terrorist movement of the 1970s and the disappearance of East Germany.
A number of those periods have dark, criminal associations, which helps to explain why crime authors are drawn to writing about them, and why the genre is a particularly suitable vehicle for exploring their complexities. The capacity of the state to persecute dissenting citizens, the actions of individuals or groups against the state and the government’s sometimes overzealous response all provide rich material for the historical crime author’s pen.
One recent, notable trend is the publication of German-language crime series that explore a significant sweep of twentieth-century history. The most ambitious of these is the series Es geschah in Berlin (‘It happened in Berlin’), which uses the investigations of Berlin police inspector Hermann Kappe to trace German history from shortly before the collapse of the German empire through to the Cold War era. To date, twenty-six novels set at two-year intervals from 1910 to 1960 have appeared, with Hermann’s nephew Otto Kappe taking over investigative duties in 1956. The novels are written by a collective of authors under the editorship of Horst Bosetzky, a well-known German crime writer and sociologist, who conceived the project in 2007 with the publisher Jaron. The series has been dubbed a Kettenroman, or chain novel, which points to its larger aim of becoming an epic, multi-part story that provides a detailed investigation of twentieth-century German history, with Berlin as a symbolic centre of events. This series has yet to be translated into English.
Some further series are starting to reach English-speaking audiences too. Babylon Berlin, the first in the bestselling Gereon Rath series set in Berlin in 1929, was published by Sandstone Press in 2016, in a translation by Niall Sellar, and is now a TV series. The author Volker Kutscher admits he was inspired by the classic children’s book Emil and the Detectives. If it’s the chaos of post-war Hamburg you are after, though, Cay Rademacher’s first book in the Inspector Stave trilogy, The Murderer in Ruins, is also available, from Arcadia Press, translated by Peter Millar.
Numerous crime standalones also examine Germany’s difficult historical legacy and understandably focus on the Nazi past and questions of individual or collective guilt. Post-war reluctance to address the past is the theme of Andrea Maria Schenkel’s prize-winning novel The Murder Farm (translated by Anthea Bell), transposing a genuine murder case from the 1920s to a rural community in the 1950s. A whole family is murdered with a pickaxe, and the readers have to sift through different voices and interpretations to make up their own minds as to what happened.
Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case (translated by Anthea Bell) uses the apparently motiveless murder of an elderly German industrialist to probe the West German judicial system’s failure to prosecute former Nazis effectively. It is given additional resonance by the author’s family background: his grandfather was Baldur von Schirach, leader of the Hitler Youth organisation.
Other crime authors explore postwar German history more widely. Bernhard Schlink is better known for his literary novel The Reader (translated by Carol Brown Janeway), but he has also written a trilogy featuring a detective called Self (translated by Peter Constantine), covering not only the legacy of the Nazi past (Self ’s Punishment) but also 1970s terrorism (Self’s Deception) and the collapse of East Germany (Self’s Murder).
The pain and disillusionment of German reunification for young Berliners is presented in Zoran Drvenkar’s cynical take on criminal entrepreneurship entitled Sorry (translated by Shaun Whiteside). Jakob Arjouni has given us the Turkish-German private investigator Kemal Kayankaya, and in the fourth book in his series, Kismet, translated by Anthea Bell, the character wrestles with the fall-out from the collapse of communism and the Balkan wars when organised crime from Eastern Europe arrives in his home city of Frankfurt. In Brother Kemal, Arjouni tackles issues such as immigration, failed assimilation and religious intolerance, which are more timely than ever in light of the refugee crisis in Europe. Finally, Simon Urban’s alternative history Plan D (translated by Katy Derbyshire), set in a 2011 East Germany in which the Berlin Wall still stands, uses police procedural and hardboiled detective novel conventions to take a wry look at post-war history and the terms of German reunification.
A notable exception to the dominant focus on internal history is the author Bernhard Jaumann, with his series of novels set in contemporary Namibia, exploring the long-term effects of German colonialism. The tense, atmospheric political thriller The Hour of the Jackal (translated by John Brownjohn) is a reconstruction of a real-life unsolved case, while Steinland (not yet translated) examines the fall-out from the Namibian government’s recent land-reform policies, which aim to return farmland acquired by German settlers during colonial rule to black communities.
One of the primary aims of historical crime fiction (much like the crime genre as a whole) is to provide readers with gripping and entertaining narratives. The English-language authors writing crime fiction set in Germany – for example, Philip Kerr, Alan Furst or David Downing – are particularly adept at using the historical backdrop to enhance the chilling elements in their stories.
For the German-language contingent, the professions of a number of these historical crime writers – such as lawyer (von Schirach), judge (Schlink) and teacher (Jaumann) – suggest that there is often a more serious purpose to their works. They aim to educate readers about particular eras or events, explore key points of historical debate, such as perpetrator motivation or German wartime suffering, and make readers think more deeply about complex issues such as justice. By posing larger historical, political and ethical questions, many German crime novels harness the genre for ambitious ends and create opportunities for dialogues with a mass readership in the present.
By Marina Sofia and Kat Hall
This article was first published on crimefictionlover.com in October 2015.
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Marina Sofia reviews crime fiction on the Crime Fiction Lover website, occasionally reviews other books on Shiny New Books and Necessary Fiction, and works behind the scenes at Asymptote Journal.
Kat Hall is a translator and editor. She reviews international crime fiction on her blog ‘Mrs Peabody Investigates’ (mrspeabodyinvestigates.wordpress.com).