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.
After six months in which I bought only three books I’ve been on a little spree this week. I say ‘little’ because I’m determined not to let the TBR get further out of control. This is a reward for sticking fairly well to my goals for the first half of the year. As reminder I set two goals:
- Enjoy my library collection to the full by reading only these books for six months. In other words: read the books I already own rather than go chasing shiny new ones. This was a more positive approach than a book ban (I know from past experience I’d never keep to that) and did give me the flexibility to borrow from libraries. I did acquire a few titles via give aways and offers of review copies but I also declined more than I accepted so the TBR is still on a downward trend. Down from 318 at the start of the year to 276 by end of June. I’m counting this as success.
- My second goal was to Learn how to use Photoshop to create more compelling images. With help from my husband who is a whizz-kid with this software program and some online tutorials I’ve managed to get beyond the basics. Much huffing and puffing is still involved each time I want to do a new montage and realise I’ve forgotten the instructions again or my computer won’t do what the tutorial says it should do. But I’m getting there.
I’m giving myself a breather in July before going once more unto the breach for the final five months of the year.
I’ll keep goal number one but will give myself a bit more slack to buy a few new titles (I’m thinking four new books would be a reasonable allowance for a 5 month period). I have a very long wishlist that I maintain on Goodreads so chosing just four books from that list could be a challenge.
Goal two will remain – there is still a lot more I to learn with Photoshop so I don’t think I can declare victory just yet.
I’m going to add a third goal.
Goal 3: I will finish all the books remaining in my Booker project. I have only 8 more titles to go before I’m done. No reason why I can’t do this by end of December.
So what did I buy on my mini spree? I deliberately avoided going to a bookshop which would be way too much temptation. Mind you I have a few hours to kill in the city tomorrow so my resolve might waver….. (I’m making zero promises!).
The local branch of The Works was doing a deal on paperbacks of 3 for £5. I couldn’t find three but did end up with:
Stasi Wolf by David Young. This is an atmospheric crime fiction series set in East Germany in the 1970s, in other words when it was still part of the Soviet empire. There’s a good review of this book by MarinaSofia at CrimeFictionLover. I won book two in the series in a give away earlier this year but was then advised to start from the beginning so was delighted to find what I thought was book. That will pay me to give closer attention to my TBR – I got home to find Stasi Wolf is the one I already have. Maybe it doesn’t count as a purchase in that case???
The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny. I wasn’t familiar with this title in the Chief Inspector Gamache series set in Quebec and the publishers have a habit of using alternative titles for some of her books. So I did a quick web search while standing in the shop to confirm that I don’t already have this under a different name. I should have done that with Stasi Wolf shouldn’t I?
My local library branch has a regular book sale table which I browse regularly, on behalf of my dad, for books in the Detective Superintendent Roy Grace crime fiction series by Peter James. He loves this series set in Brighton but gets frustrated because he can’t borrow them from his library in the order of publication. So I keep an eye out to fill in any gaps for him. No luck again on my recent visit but I did find that monstrously large book at the bottom of the stack.
Cwmcardy is published by the Library of Wales as part of their project to bring out-of-print or forgotten books of Welsh literature back into play. Cwmcardy is one of two epic novels written by Lewis Jones about his experience in South Wales between 1890s and 1930s and is considered one of the Great Welsh novels. This is a rather graphic portrait of exploitation, violence and political aspiration experienced by the industrial workers of this part of Wales around the time of the General Strike in 1926. That could make it sound rather grim and ‘worthy’ but I note that the reviewer who nominated this as a Great Welsh Novel, considered it a page-turner full of action and sensation. It’s more than 700 pages long so quite when I’ll get round to reading it is a big question – however it cost 20pence which seemed a small investment for strengthening my collection of Welsh authors.