Nordic Noir? Try German Gris…

ritzelOkay, you asked for it – or at least AIP did: a random literary post. I’m horribly busy at the moment, trying to finish writing a book by the end of March, which explains why I haven’t been around much and won’t have time to post much until that’s out of the way – but today has been reasonably productive (not with the book, but I’ve drafted part of a German job application, and worked through a load of other stuff), and so I can afford half an hour to respond to his plea for more randomness. I very much enjoyed the discussion of his post on fantasy literature, and so thought I’d take a cue from the references there to hard-boiled crime fiction and the like…

The bad news is that of course I don’t read sensible books like normal people any more; instead, I want to talk about German crime fiction. I started reading this about eight years ago, as a handy way of improving my German – the plots are strong enough to give a motive to keep reading, and it’s reasonably easy to get the gist even if you don’t understand every word (as opposed to my early attempts, at the suggestion of a friend, at reading Peter Handke; I’m now a massive fan, but when you’re a beginner it’s not especially fun to try to make sense of a novel which deliberately blurs the boundaries between actual events and the protagonist’s fantasies and hallucinations, not to mention the weird extended goal-keeping metaphor…). However, I soon realised that deutsche Krimis have an enormous amount to offer in their own right, with a whole load of writers who deserve to be as well-known as the Scandinavian lot.

I’m going to talk about two major categories. The first is the Regional Krimi, a phenomenon which has now expanded to extraordinary and sometimes hilarious proportions. These are stories set very specifically in particular cities or regions, with lots of local colour, crimes directly related to local conditions, thick local accents (some of the stories set in Bavaria, especially Lower Bavaria, verge on the incomprehensible in places – just like real life), local landmarks and local foodstuffs. Down in the Bavarian Alps, Kommisar Kluftinger investigates fraud in the cheese factory, plays in a brass band and pines for his Käsespätzle; in the Badischer wine country, it’s all about death at the wine tasting competition; in Heidelberg, Staatsanwalt Gerlach spends most of his time investigating dubious goings-on in the university, and so forth. Some of these are played deliberately for laughs (the Kluftinger books are very funny at times), some of them are more like tourist promotional material (though I think the main target audience are people with lots of local pride, and a lot of them are very badly written indeed – all the more as umpteen little publishers have sprung up in recent years to put out any local Krimi that turns up on their doorstep. But at their best, these books are excellent detective stories – mostly police procedural – with the added dimension of being firmly rooted in a locality and culture. Apart from Ian Rankin, I struggle to think of British equivalents, but then I probably don’t read enough British crime fiction these days.

A second, overlapping category is the historical Krimi. This is rather smaller, and largely confined to Berlin (I know of one sort-of-okay medieval one set around Cologne cathedral, but that’s about it). In the capital, however, these are really big; there seem to be entire series based on decades, so you can read sets of books around Berlin in the decadent 20s, the violent 30s, the war years, the period of the divided city and so forth. Like the regional books, some of these are quite badly written, but they do generally display a lot of learning and research, and they are much less focused on laughs. The very best for me is the ongoing series by Volker Kutscher, focused on a young police detective who arrives in the city around the end of the 1920s. The lead character is deeply flawed and morally compromised, and occasionally unsympathetic; the books spend almost as much time on internal police politics and the slow collapse of the entire socio-political system as they do on actual crimes. Lots of Chandler and Hammett, I think, but blended with lots of historical research to recreate the period wonderfully and interweave real and fictional events. Of the four published so far, I’ve read three, and so have got up to about 1932, so things are about to get really ugly and complicated. The positive thing is that Rath, the protagonist, is definitely on the more liberal end of things, so isn’t likely to sign up with the Nazis in a hurry; the bad news is that either he’s going to come to a very sticky end or, more likely, this is going to involve ever more appalling compromises with an ever more dreadful system. Realistically, he’s unlikely suddenly to join the Communist resistance; rather, we’re going to see this awkward but basically decent young man become ever more complicit in tyranny, as he’s a state servant and the state is telling him to do things.

This is one of the things I like most about German Krimis (and, indeed, about Germany); there is little fear in confronting the dreadful events of the past, seeking to face up to them rather than to excuse them or put a happy gloss on them. I trust Kutscher enough as a writer to think that he isn’t going to chicken out and offer a happy or redemptive ending; at the most, Rath may be able to escape abroad, but why will he even try to? And this brings me to my final example, my favourite writer out of all of them: Ulrich Ritzel. Ritzel writes police procedurals set in the present, around the city of Ulm – but in most cases the crimes turn out to have deep roots in the darker places of the German past, and things become messier and messier as the police open up successive cans of worms – until, generally, the higher organs of the state step in to order a stop to the investigation and a cover-up. Berndorf, the lead character, is a little bit of a cliche – rumpled, world-weary detective nearing retirement, lives along and plays a lot of chess, all the standard Marlowe-esque cynicism but an underlying heroic romanticism – but he is still sympathetic and believable, and the various supporting characters are extremely well drawn. The Shadow of the Swan involves Nazi medical experiments and unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies; Driftwood deals with organised crime; The Black Edges of the Embers (my favourite) engages with the after-effects of the era of the Baader-Meinhof gang, in which questions of justice and legimitate violence became ever more obscured; The Hound of the Prophet brings in anti-gypsy violence and the aftermath of the fall of the DDR.

If I’ve done my job at all well, at least some of you may be asking where you can get hold of some of these books. Here’s the bad news; none of them is available in English. Why, I really don’t know, given that every obscure Nordic crime novelist is getting translated pretty well instantaneously these days, but clearly German crime fiction isn’t fashionable enough, or even known about (though, interestingly, the Germans latched onto Mankell, Nesbo et al years before the English-speaking public did; there’s an interesting case study here of how some languages can be bridges between cultures, and yet themselves neglected). I’m afraid the best I can offer at this stage is that, as part of my German practice, I’m slowly producing a translation of my favourite Ritzel, and can let you see the first section here. Unfortunately it starts quite slowly…

And with that, I trust I win the award for Most Completely Pointless Spill Post Ever..?

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10 thoughts on “Nordic Noir? Try German Gris…

  1. Ooh, i so can’t wait! Off to do stupid errands right now, but will savor later…

    Bernie Gunther (via the Scot- Philip Kerr) is about as close as i’ve gotten to kraut gris…(but it’s pretty noir).

    Will no doubt be able to give you plenty of British regional crime writers too…

  2. I’m currently quite enjoying a Ross MacDonald, but If it’s German language you’re after Heinrich Steinfest is worth a look… a Stuttgarter/Wiener who spends his time equally in both cities. The Cheng series is fine… Ein sturer Hund is a good read. I may just be saying that because I’m a devoted owner of a fairly stubborn dog myself, of course. Oddly enough they are filming a new Soko series about 20 meters from where I live at the moment, which is quite annoying, and it also annoys my dog.

  3. …though if we’re allowed to widen the borders slightly in Mitteleuropa I’d also recommend Jean-Patrick Manchette to any noir fans… Three to kill is available in English and highly recommended.

  4. Confession time: I haven’t read any of these books at all and wouldn’t even know about them if you hadn’t posted here. So much for living on the doorstep…
    The only German ‘detective’ fiction I have ever enjoyed were the Gisbert Haefs
    Balthasar Matzbach books (and a quick peek at Wiki tells me there’ve been at least 3 new ones since last I indulged) – the others all read the same to me (granted, I’ve never tried any of the dialect stories you mention).

    If you’re looking for a partner-in-crime when it comes to translating said works, though, then I’m the gal for you!

    • Oh, and for historical novels based in Hamburg, try Petra Oelker. With titles like ‘Tod am Zollhaus’ I’m guessing there’ll be detective work involved…

  5. Really enjoyed this post – makes me regret giving up my attempts to learn German a couple of years back – am determined to go back and try again though. The German literature I have enjoyed most of late is Heinrich Böll (particularly The Clown) which thankfully is available in excellent translations, but it would be nice to get hold of more of this end of the market.

  6. Well, folks, you may be in luck: I’ve just had an email message from Ulrich Ritzel himself, thanking me for my kind words and saying that a friend of his has translated two of the books and is currently looking for an English publisher for them. I do always forget that posting something on here isn’t actually private, and that artists and authors probably spend significant amounts of time Googling themselves. Anyway, neither of the books is my favourite (so it’s remotely conceivable that my translation of Black Edges may one day see the light of day; Herr Ritzel did ask if I might be interested in a proper collaboration, but I simply don’t have the time at the moment to make such a commitment), but if they do appear they are very highly recommended, especially The Hound of the Prophet.

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