Wednesday, 9 March 2016
My Review of "Stasi Child" by David Young
It's East Berlin 1975 and Karin Muller is called to investigate a teenage girl's body at the foot of the wall. When she arrives at the crime scene she is startled to find the Ministry for State Security (Stasi) there rather than the Border Police. This girl was trying to escape over the wall. But, strangely, from the West into the East.
Muller is tasked to uncover the identity of the girl but only as part of a Missing Persons investigation, not as the murder which has obviously taken place. The Stasi discourage her questions and it soon becomes clear there is a deeper more sinister crime taking place behind the scenes, of which Muller is not to seek knowledge. Her colleague Tilsner wants them taken off the case, understanding the complications of working "alongside" the Stasi and how it will limit and compromise their investigation but Muller is principled, of a curious mind and proud to be the only female head of a Murder Squad in the whole country. She continues to investigate the crime despite the dangerous path it will set her on.
Young wastes no time grabbing the reader and pulling them quickly into the complications of a dark, foreboding crime scene. The book opens with Muller waking with a hangover and a creeping realisation that she has spent the night away from her husband Gottfried and with her colleague Tilsner instead. Tilsner is insolent and disrespectful; Muller full of remorse and reprisal. The detailed description of her headaches, Tilsner's apartment and their actions is so grim and distasteful it fills the reader with a sense of foreboding tension from the outset. Having fought so hard to survive in a man's world and gain the impressive position as Head of Murder Squad, Muller is anxious that she could not have "people calling her a whore". Already the sense that Muller has a fight ahead of her is implied. The already dark and aggressive atmosphere only becomes more sinister and grim with their visit to the cemetery where the body of a murdered girl has been discovered. Young writes of "ever darkening clouds in the sky" and alongside the strained relationship between the colleagues, the unpleasant dialogue and behaviour of Tilsney towards Muller and the fierce, unapproachable, threatening and secretive nature of the Stasi, the stage is set for a thriller of the most bleak and riveting kind.
The narrative then switches to 1974 and a Jugenwerkhof - a Youth Reformatory School. Here Young evokes the cruel brutality of the children's routine and daily life. There is no hiding from the relentless barrage of violence and abuse in this novel. It is graphic at times but simultaneously compelling, enthralling and engrossing. I had read almost a third of the book without even noticing and found it hard to break away from.
The mystery continues to unfold at a rapid pace. Why are the Stasi so keen to hide the truth? Who has gone to so much trouble to "stage" the murder and interfere with the evidence? Who is this girl and why is it so difficult to identify her?
The fascinating thing about this criminal investigation is how the lines of enquiry are controlled by the Stasi. Muller is frequently prevented from fully accessing information and she is repeatedly warned not to challenge the official version of the girl's death: "You have exceeded the terms of your inquiry" and Muller will be arrested if "you don't comply." She "shivers from the implied threats (from the Stasi) as much as the cold." But she remains prepared to "search every corner of the Republic to find the identity of the girl" and I loved the added suspense that this angle brought to the novel. The pressure and heightened hostility about not being able to fully investigate a crime and the anxiety of repercussions if you do, really enhance the gritty atmosphere of this engaging, page turning read.
Muller's husband Gottfried then becomes a more central character. Fundamentally Karin conforms to the communist regime although her compassion and principled nature will begin to challenge this and adds a further complexity to her character. But Gottfried is already under suspicion from the authorities - this is a risk to Karin in her position, mixed up with the further issue that the couple are unhappy and unkind to each other. The dramatic events which surround Gottfried are so well captured that at times it is impossible to tear your eyes away from the pages even though the brutality, violence and torture are quite harrowing. I loved the way the prose became more bleak and was reduced to its most basic form in order to accentuate the harshness of the Stasi. "Night time: light on light off on off on off" and "Another night. Another day. Another night.....this hellish place." Young's historical detail is so vivid and well researched that the atmosphere, characters and situations are authentic and believable. His knowledge of the procedures in a Stasi prison is impressive and ensure that every aspect of this novel is convincing and credible. The reader is completely immersed in 1975 East Germany.
Alongside all this, the story of Irma and her attempts to escape from the Jugendwerkhof continue. Also the narrative of nightmares.
The three story lines weave themselves together as the plot thickens and charges towards a brilliant ending. It is a very gripping read.
The most impressive thing about this novel is Young's ability to transport the reader back in time to a regime of repression, oppression, fear, mistrust and accusation. It's such an interesting era in which to set a crime as it is the perfect backdrop for stories of corruption and intimidation. Young's thorough research and attention to historical detail does not overburden or detract from the plot in any way - it actually enhances it. There is no need to have any prior knowledge or familiarity with the historical and social context, it's an accessible and fast paced read. It is a claustrophobic read; the setting and the characters are so vividly depicted that the atmosphere of paranoia oozes from every page. It really is a well observed and exciting crime novel that reads with such fluidity and expertise it's was a surprise to find out this was Young's debut novel. I was convinced it must have been part of an established series but now of course am in the fortunate position of being able to look forward to many more episodes in the Karin Muller series!
With the current rise in "Nordic Noir" fiction and Television series and the equally engrossing and powerful programme "Deutschland 83", this book is a timely release and will appeal to all fans of this genre. For lovers of crime and detective fiction it will undoubtedly deliver you a 5 star read. Muller is a strong female character and I hope to follow her career in the Murder Squad for many more years!
Currently this book is available on Kindle for £1.79 - this is ridiculously cheap and I urge you to download it! Amazon reviews have rated it 4.5/5 and on Goodreads it has an equally impressive 4/5 star rating. The book sits in the WHSmith top 20 and also in its "Hottest Books of the Week" section. So don't just take my word for it - grab yourself a copy and go back to an all too frighteningly recent period in European History for an "edge of your seat", "breathtaking" ride from which Young refuses to let you leave until you have turned the very last page!
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