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Quality, diversity and untapped potential: the contemporary German-language Krimi

By Katharina Hall

The Krimi – crime fiction from Germany, Austria and Switzerland – has a long and rich history stretching back to Adolph Müllner’s Der Kaliber (The Calibre), whose publication in 1828 anticipated Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue by over a decade. In particular, the second half of the twentieth century produced a range of fascinating German-language crime novels and protagonists, from Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s existentially challenged Swiss detectives of the 1950s (Das Versprechen / The Pledge) to Jakob Arjouni’s ground-breaking Turkish-German P.I. of the 1980s (Happy Birthday, Türke! / Happy Birthday, Turk!) and Ingrid Noll’s suburban German murderesses of the 1990s (Die Apothekerin / The Pharmacist). Contemporary crime fiction from the German-speaking world is equally vibrant, with texts increasingly becoming available in English translation as publishers start to tap this underexploited literary resource.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which triggered a renewed examination of Germany’s turbulent twentieth century, there has been a boom in historical crime fiction in the German-speaking world. Volker Kutscher’s ‘Gereon Rath’ series (2007- ), which follows Inspector Rath from the Weimar Berlin of 1929 to Nazi domination in 1933, uses the crime genre to chronicle and dissect German history in the crucial interwar period (the first in the cycle, Der nasse Fisch or The Wet Fish, is forthcoming in English with Sandstone Press). Andreas Pittler’s eight-novel ‘Bronstein’ series (2008- ) performs a similar function in Austrian contexts. His Protestant-Jewish police investigator is shown navigating Vienna’s stormy political waters between 1913 and 1955, but innovatively moves back in time during the first four novels, from 1938 to 1913, thereby excavating the causes of later historical events. The fifth in the series, Zores, appeared as Inspector Bronstein and the Anschluss with Ariadne Press in 2013. In contrast to these, Simon Urban’s standalone Plan D (Vintage, 2014) draws on private investigator conventions to explore the legacies of reunification in an alternative Germany still divided by the Berlin Wall, while Bernhard Jaumann’s ‘Clemencia Garises’ trilogy (part of the fast-growing Afrika-Krimi subgenre) examines the reverberations of nineteenthcentury German colonialism in present-day Namibia, through the investigations of a strong, female police detective (Die Stunde des Schakals / The Hour of the Jackal and Steinland / ‘Stoneland’).

As in the UK, long-running crime series and investigators have strong followings in the Germanspeaking world. A prominent example is Nele Neuhaus’s ‘Bodenstein and Kirchhoff’ police procedural series (2006- ), which targets a broad readership through its exploration of diverse social, political and historical topics. Set in the Taunus region of western Germany, it draws on a strong tradition of regional crime fiction, but fuses local detail with global concerns in the manner of Henning Mankell’s Swedish ‘Wallander’ series. Three Neuhaus novels have been published in English to date, but other highly popular German-language series are yet to be translated, such as Wolfgang Schorlau’s ‘Georg Dengler’ series (2003- ), whose Stuttgart-based private eye solves various cases involving the pharmaceutical industry, post-traumatic stress disorder, global resource conflicts, the legacy of the GDR and right-wing terrorism. Other examples include Su Turhan’s ‘Kommissar Pascha’ series, which features senior Turkish-German police inspector Zeki Demirbilek. Currently comprising four novels, it offers fascinating insights into migrant experience and identity, as does Swiss writer Sunil Mann’s ‘Vijay Kumar’ series, whose private eye is of Indian heritage. Equally intriguing is Katharina Höftmann’s ‘Assaf Rosenthal’ series, which is set in Tel Aviv with a police detective who was formerly an army officer in the Israeli occupied territories.

Krimis are often socially and politically engaged. They reflect on facets of German, Swiss and Austrian society or critique attitudes to class, race and gender, as demonstrated by the recent winner of the 2015 German Crime Fiction Prize, Franz Dobler’s Ein Bulle im Zug (‘A Cop on the Train’, reviewed in NBG 37). Possibly contrary to expectation, readers will also find strong evidence of wit and satirical humour, as illustrated by Austrian writer Wolf Haas’s ‘Simon Brenner’ series (published in English by Melville) and Sascha Arango’s Die Wahrheit und andere Lügen (The Truth and Other Lies). The latter employs a darkly humorous voice that pays homage to Patricia Highsmith. Other authors such as Austrian Bernhard Aichner also successfully blend local settings with international influences like Dexter and Tarantino’s Kill Bill, as shown in the first of Aichner’s ‘Blum’ trilogy, Totenfrau (Woman of the Dead).

Diverse, original and entertaining, contemporary German-language crime novels are beginning to make their mark in Englishlanguage contexts thanks to the excellent work of British and American publishing houses, and of translators such as Anthea Bell and Katy Derbyshire. Many more Krimis will hopefully join them in the thriving international crime fiction market soon.

Contemporary Krimis in English translation – a selection:
Jakob Arjouni – the Kayankaya series (No Exit Press)

Nele Neuhaus – the Bodenstein & Kirchhoff series (Pan Macmillan)

Wolf Haas – the Simon Brenner series (Melville House)

Bernhard Jaumann, The Hour of the Jackal (John Beaufoy, 2011)

Andreas Pittler, Inspector Bronstein and the Anschluss (Ariadne Press, 2013)

Simon Urban, Plan D (Vintage, 2014)

Sascha Arango, The Truth and Other Lies (Simon & Schuster, 2015)

Bernhard Aichner, Woman of the Dead (W&N, 2015)

Volker Kutscher, The Wet Fish (forthcoming with Sandstone Press)

Katharina Hall Photo: private
Katharina Hall
is Associate Professor of German at Swansea University and the editor of Crime Fiction in German: Der Krimi, forthcoming with the University of Wales Press in March 2016. She runs the international crime fiction blog ‘Mrs Peabody Investigates’.