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Criminal Masterminds in German-Language Fiction

Sam Hancock seeks out the German crime writers that might rival the current wave of Nordic thrillers – and finds a stash of exhilarating tales that stretch from Finland to Namibia, many of which are already available in English translation.

Walking down the street these days is to risk being avalanched by placards championing the latest Stieg Larsson novel, film, spin-off or gaudy branded mug.
Other Scandinavian authors are not far behind. Camilla Läckberg has sold an astounding number of books in her native Sweden (more than one for every second person). Publishers – mine included – are bombarded with reams of Scandinavian manuscripts, as agents desperately seek to make their clients the next Stieg, Jo or Camilla.
So far, so good: Stieg et al are proving something that all NBG enthusiasts should cherish, that quality crime fiction can – and indeed does – work in translation. But where are the Germanlanguage crime writers in all this? The language whose speakers invented the much-celebrated Krimi? Where are Dürrenmatt’s successors hiding? Not far behind. In fact, I recently saw Jan Costin Wagner’s latest work, Silence, sitting snugly alongside Stieg on the front-of-store tables at a bookshop in Piccadilly. Costin Wagner, though, is just one of the plethora of stunningly original German-language authors seamlessly moving into the English-language market.
Sorry, by Zoran Drvenkar

Croatian-born and Berlin-bred, Zoran Drvenkar is a case in point. Already the author of a wonderful range of books for children and young adult fiction, Drvenkar turned to writing adult crime in 2009 with Sorry, a harrowing thriller. Sorry sees a group of four young and disaffected Berlin adults come up with a breathtakingly simple yet highly lucrative idea to extricate themselves from economic misery: an agency which vicariously apologises for the misdeeds of others.
Their notion takes off spectacularly, and soon they are acting on behalf of a rag-bag of corporate, private and frankly bizarre clients. Things are going well – almost too well – when one of their clients seems to turn on them. They arrive at a deserted flat in Kreuzberg to discover a woman’s mutilated corpse nailed to a wall – she has been crucified. The group is terrified: their idea has been taken to the extreme, and somehow they end up apologising vicariously through a series of murders across Berlin and beyond. In a denouement centred around a villa in Wansee, the reader is taken on an emotional journey at the end of which – really – these crucifixions seem justified.
But what is it about Drvenkar that really sets him aside from his contemporaries? What is his work’s standout feature? Drvenkar’s British publisher, Patrick Janson- Smith of Blue Door, is unequivocal in his answer to this question: ‘Quite simply, Sorry is the best thriller I have read since Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. It’s a tough, brutal and complex novel, but utterly, utterly compelling from first page to last. I can think of no British writer – and I admire many of those who write in the crime/thriller genre, not least Mo Hayder, Simon Beckett and Val McDermid – who could deliver such a story in such a fashion. It’s not really a question of there being something “lacking” in British or, indeed, American writers, it’s just that Zoran Drvenkar has written a very special novel that is deserving of the widest possible audience.’ Drvenkar’s ability to pull off the second-person narrative voice (rarely executed successfully by writers of any genre, and a feature which crops up throughout his oeuvre) is testament to the originality Janson-Smith touches upon. This feature lends the novel a unique sense of directness. Indeed, I read much of the book as if in a trance.
Drvenkar’s latest novel You is just as magnificently original – and bone-chillingly terrifying – as Sorry. The novel opens in medias res, directly addressing a man known only as ‘The Traveller’, who proceeds to kill a vast amount of people in their cars on a grid-locked Autobahn. Drvenkar never allows the pace to slip from thenceforward, relating the story from the perspectives of a group of young, colourfully-named and, again, maladjusted Berliners: Taja, Stinke, Rute, Mirko, Nessi and Schnappi. The theft of five kilograms of heroin by one of the gang kicks off a fight with a group of ruthless Turkish men, led by Rangar, which can only end in death.
Drvenkar’s labyrinthine plot takes us to the heart of the Berlin criminal underworld, leading us on a journey in a stolen Range Rover to an abandoned house in Norway – with a denouement intricately linked to the key characters’ dark histories. Again, this is all executed with an originality and deftness which leaves the reader feeling like they’ve never before read anything even remotely similar. Drvenkar takes fate, coincidence, filial loyalty and interconnectedness as his central themes, stretching these to extremes and in the process exposing an array of deep, dark secrets within the characters’ psyches.
But Drvenkar and Costin Wagner are not alone. What is behind this renaissance in enthusiasm for German crime, I wonder? Janson-Smith puts it down to a liberalisation in attitudes toward publishing commercial fiction in translation in general, asserting, ‘It takes only a few foreign-language successes for us publishers to start jumping on the bandwagon. The extraordinary success internationally of the Scandinavian writers has helped fuel British publishers’ resolve. But even before the “Scandinvasion” there were the one-off successes: for example, Perfume by Patrick Süskind, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, etc. I think we, the British reading public, have finally woken up to the fact that there are literary (and not so literary) treasures to be found from all around the world. Thank goodness!’
The Hour of the Jackal, by
Bernhard Jaumann

One such recent gem is Bernhard Jaumann’s latest novel, German Crime Prize-winning The Hour of the Jackal. Set in modern-day Namibia, Jaumann’s novel follows Clemencia, a black police chief, in her quest to discover the culprit of a series of murders that follows the brutal killing of a gardener in Windhoek, which in turn thrusts the reader back to events just prior to the southern African nation’s successful campaign for independence in 1990.
Clemencia’s journey takes her across most of the region and back to a forgotten murder almost twenty years previously, when white SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organization – the Namibian liberation movement) lawyer Anton Lubowski was gunned down by a circle of apartheid fanatics, which later disintegrated. The novel paints a carefully crafted and visceral description of independent Namibia – a country slowly shaking off the shackles of the apartheid mentality, whose population, though disenchanted with the ideals of twenty years earlier, muddle on with their everyday lives in the face of adversity. Jaumann captures this ambivalent relationship beautifully, creating multifaceted and humane characters, with a sumptuously described backdrop. In the words of his translator, John Brownjohn, Jaumann’s prose is shot through with an unusual ability to ‘conjure up the heat and aridity’ and he deploys this with panache throughout The Hour of the Jackal.
September Fata Morgana, by Thomas Lehr

This willingness to tackle broadbrush themes is evinced in a similar, but far more lyrical, novel which tackles ‘crimes’ of a very different nature: Thomas Lehr’s Fata Morgana. Focusing on two sets of father and daughter and criss-crossing between New York and Baghdad, Lehr’s novel gives us a coalface perspective on two events that have helped shape modern history: New York in 2001 and Baghdad in 2004. On the one hand we have Martin, a divorced professor of German (of dual USGerman origin) and his daughter Sabrina, who dies tragically in the World Trade Center attacks. In Iraq, meanwhile, we follow the life of Tarik, a Paris-educated Iraqi, whose daughter Muna dies in the war in 2004. Lehr acquaints us intimately with their respective psyches, showing us the profound effects of the two macrocosmic events.
The novel’s structure and title (a ‘Fata Morgana’ is a form of superior mirage which distorts objects in focus, in some instances rendering them completely unrecognisable) mirror the experiences of the two fathers, both of whom can but wish that their experiences were optical illusions. This intimate depiction of the personal is matched by the panoramic view the novel offers of the prevalent cultural landscape in the first half of the last decade. But Lehr is not afraid to inject a frisson of humour, the presence of melodramatic TV reporters being a case in point.
With barely punctuated sentences, Lehr’s novel offers the reader a series of stream-of-consciousness passages which bring us to the centre of the respective protagonists’ psyches, in prose often reminiscent of the poems of e. e. cummings or Alfred Döblin’s undervalued classic Berlin Alexanderplatz. Its intertextuality and bombardment of the reader with cultural experiences is reminiscent of Biberkopf’s experience in Döblin’s novel.
But beneath this superficial lack of form the novel has a strong underlying structure: rigidly swapping perspective between the two men, in a style Lehr has claimed he derived from Homer’s Iliad. This is strengthened by the joint cultural roots shared by Tarik and Martin, and indeed the pivotal experiences both men must endure, and illustrates something also evident in both Drvenkar and Jaumann’s writing: a willingness to be different, to approach macrocosmic themes in an idiosyncratic manner and, above all, a startling originality. That’s why British publishers are starting to sit up and take note.
There are far more shining lights of contemporary German crime fiction than can fit into this article, but two other writers worthy of mention are Ferdinand von Schirach (published by Chatto & Windus) and the aforementioned Jan Costin Wagner, whose three previous novels (Silence, Ice Moon and Winter of the Lions) are published by Harvill Secker. The last of these is the third outing of Kimmo Jonetaa, Wagner’s elusive and enigmatic protagonist, a man haunted by flashbacks of his dead wife and whose idiosyncratic methods often prove the only way of solving complex crimes.
Crime, by Ferdinand von

Munich-based defence lawyer von Schirach, meanwhile, has been delighting readers worldwide with Crime, a set of short stories based around strange cases taken on by his chambers. Each of the stories boasts a noirish and dry narrative voice, yet one laced with humanity – and his legions of readers are eagerly awaiting the publication of his first novel this autumn, Der Fall Collini.
In the last analysis, therefore, there is no ‘roter Faden’ which ties together this crop of fantastic crime fiction, bar, that is, the originality and scope of each of the respective novels. What has changed is British publishers’ stance towards these stories and their willingness to embrace their quirks – something we should welcome with open arms.
  • Sorry by Zoran Drvenkar, translated by Shaun Whiteside, will be published in the US in September 2011 by Knopf and in the UK on 1 March 2012 by Blue Door. You will follow in 2013.

  • The Hour of the Jackal by Bernard Jaumann, translated by John Brownjohn, was published on 1 August 2011 by John Beaufoy Publishing.

  • Crime (March 2011) and Guilt (January 2012) by Ferdinand von Schirach, translated by Carol Brown Janeway, are published by Chatto & Windus.

  • Ice Moon (tr. John Brownjohn), Silence and The Winter of the Lions (tr. Anthea Bell) by Jan Costin Wagner are published by Harvill Secker.
Sam Hancock
studied English and German at the University of Warwick, and is now a digital editor at HarperCollins, working across the HarperFiction, Blue Door and Voyager imprints.