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Thursday, October 1, 2015

New Release - Review of "Stasi Child" by David Young

3.5 Stars

This historical crime novel, apparently the first in a series featuring Oberleutnant Karen Müller, is set in the mid-1970s in East Germany.  The mutilated body of a teenaged girl is found near the Berlin Wall.  Klaus Jäger, an officer with Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, enlists the help of Karin and her partner, Werner Tilsner.  Jäger tells them the girl was shot by someone from the West as she was escaping to East Germany.  The police detectives are told to “’discover the identity of the girl, and to find evidence to support this account,’” but they are soon exceeding the parameters of their task and looking to identify the murderer.

One of the strengths of the book is its portrayal of life in East Germany before the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, or the Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier as it is called by East Germans.  There is an almost smothering atmosphere of paranoia as everyone is being watched.  Karin’s husband Gottfried, for example, is under surveillance, this after being “temporarily banished to the reform school after failing to instill his Berlin students with enough party zealotry.”  And even Karin is told by Jäger, “’I’m sure that Oberleutnant Müller will examine all the evidence in her usual thorough fashion, and will arrive at the correct conclusion.’  There was no real menace in his voice, yet Müller understood it as a veiled threat.”  There is a great deal of mistrust; there are times when Karin wonders if she can trust her superiors or even her partner.

The narrative alternates between the point of view of Karin and that of Irma Behrendt, a young girl in a jugendwerkhof, a reformatory.  Part of the interest lies in trying to determine how the two stories will converge. 

Karin is determined and ambitious.  My difficulty lies with her marriage.  The reader is made to understand that Karin and Gottfried’s relationship is frayed, but the reason for the distancing is unclear.  There are suggestions that Karin’s dedication to her job may be the issue, but that doesn’t explain her entanglement with someone portrayed as a philanderer.

Another problem lies with her loyalty to East Germany.  Towards the  end, Irma tells Karin, “’You’re part of the system. You try living in a closed Jugendwerkhof.  Then you would see why so many people are desperate to leave this shitty little country.’”  Karin’s response is to drop her gaze because “She didn’t want to admit the truth of what the teenager was saying.  It struck too close to what she had always believed in.”  This last statement does  not fit with what she says and thinks at other times.  For example, she comments about female workers:  “It was something she was glad to see: women at every level supporting the Republic, something that would never happen in the West.”  At another time, she observes, “Yes, it was a small country, but it was focused on the future, making its mark, not inward-looking and money-obsessed, or reliant on manufacturing cuckoo clocks for tourists like some western states.”  The author makes it clear that Karin has little interest in exploring even West Berlin, so why does she suddenly agree that she lives “in this shithole of a country”?  Her change in attitude is not convincing.

There are some plot issues.  There are some coincidences that stretch credibility.  For instance, there is an ever-so-convenient name change.   Is it realistic that a disgraced police university lecturer have so many powerful contacts and so much influence?  And there are unanswered questions.  At the end, Jäger says things like, “’We’re not sure who . . . ‘” and “’We’re not sure why’” and “’I don’t really understand that myself.’”  The epilogue has an interesting twist, but the scene before that, in the forest near East Berlin, left me confused:  Who has fallen off the political tightrope that everyone seems to walk in East Germany?

Despite its weaknesses, this is still a good police procedural set before the use of computers in investigations.  I will keep my eyes open for the next book in the series.

Note:  I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.