The fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago was the beginning of the end for one of the world’s most repressive intelligence and secret police agencies. For decades the Stasi spied on the population of East Germany using a vast network of informants to infiltrate every aspect of their lives and root out dissidents.
David Young provides a sinister reminder of this organisation and its methods in Stasi Child, the first title in a crime series set during the era of the Cold War.
On a cold winter morning in 1975, Oberleutnant Karin Müller, senior detective with the East German police force, is summoned to the Wall where the mutilated body of a young girl has been discovered. The official Stasi line is that the girl was shot trying to escape to the West but Müller quickly realises all is not as it seems. She’s particularly troubled to be told her inquiry should focus on discovering the identity of the girl rather than the identity of her killer.
Truth is Impossible
Müller’s quest for the truth takes her on a clandestine trip into West Berlin, up snow-laden mountains and down into a secret tunnel running under the East-West border. At every turn she feels the dark and sinister presence of the Stasi. Their interest in her activities not only threatens to derail her investigation, it makes her fear for her future.
With tremendous attention to detail, Stasi Child shows the near impossibility of uncovering the truth in a society determined at all costs to prevent certain secrets ever being discovered.
Karin Müller is a savvy operator and a forceful character – you have to be pretty darn smart to become the highest ranking woman in the Volkspolizei. But she is not immune to the reality that in this society, her job, her security and her life are at risk if she is seen to over-step her authority or persue unhelpful lines of inquiry. Her vulnerability increases still further when her schoolteacher husband, is arrested after surveillance showed him meeting a a church pastor suspected of anti-communist beliefs.
Question of Trust
This is a world where your neighbour can be ‘persuaded’ to become state informers, citizens are sent for ‘re-education’ in Communist values and young people made to endure the harsh regimes of state reform schools.
The bleakness of life in East Germany permeates the entire novel. For the citizens of East Berlin, the west is tantalisingly close but they’re not sure it is necessarily better. Can they trust what they have been told or is this yet another example of distorted truth.
As they entered the checkpoint, Muller glanced up the road past the barriers to the bustle of West Berlin beyond. She wondered if it really was as glamorous as the adverts on western TV made out. Or were Der schwarze Kanal’s accounts of strikes, homeless unemployed begging on the streets and ruthless greedy bosses nearer the truth?
One night in West Berlin opens Karin Muller’s eyes to the realities of life in the west. As part of her investigation she’s required to go shopping and to spend the night in a hotel. She relishes the variety and quality of the clothing available though is horrified by the cost. Once that geni is out of the bag it’s difficult to put it back in again.
In the office, she allowed herself one reminder of the West. She piled the shopping bags on the long table, under the noticeboard, and then lifted out the large shoebox that contained the boots. She opened it, and peeled back the protective tissue paper. Then she removed one boot, and caressed the fur-lined top, as though stroking a cat. A small touch of luxury. Then she looked up at the photographs pinned to the noticeboard. The dead, nameless girl without teeth. The girl without eyes.
Müller dropped the fur-lined boot as though it was infected.
The ambiguity of attitudes plus the atmospheric setting of the novel make Stasi Child stand apart from the thousands of police procedurals published ever year. The plot is satisfying enough, with plenty of twists and revelations though it’s not overly complicated. There’s added interest via another narrative strand from nine months earlier in a reform school where a teenage girl plots how she and her friend can escape. Karin Muller is a character whose vulnerability yet determination is engaging. But it’s really the dark portrayal of a society controlled by fear that was utterly gripping.
Stasi Child: EndNotes
Stasi Child is the debut novel by David Young which won the 2016 Crime Writers’ Association Endeavour Historical Dagger for the best historical crime novel of the year. It was also longlisted for the 2016 Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. He explains the origin of his series in this interview
There are now four novels in the series with a fifth, Stasi Winter, due to be published in January 2020.
David Young became an author after a career in journalism and broadcasting. He now writes in his garden shed and in his spare time supports Hull City football club.