More crime fiction

Weimar Berlin—Stasi—Russia—Hungary

Berlin Alex

From Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.

In my post on the Navajo novels of Tony Hillerman I admired the necessary social and personal texture that rarely informs more scholarly accounts. And in another review I featured crime fiction from East Asia and the GDR—as well as Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, mostly concerning the rise of Hitler, World War Two, and the Cold War aftermath.

MetropolisIn Metropolis (which turned out to be Kerr’s last book in the series, published posthumously in 2019) he returned to Bernie’s early career during the Weimar period. As ever, historical personages (such as Arthur Nebe and George Grosz) are woven into the plot, as well as early performances of The threepenny opera.

Often such novels come from outsiders to the culture portrayed. But German authors have long explored the Weimar era—a genre enshrined in

  • Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929),

a complex, sprawling assembly of underworld degradation through turbulent times. The author’s own summary gives an impression of his distinctive, disorienting literary style:

Doblin summary

Michael Hoffmann has risen to the daunting challenge of translating Döblin’s quirky Berlinisch prose—do read his Afterword, and this review. Cf. Hoffmann’s version of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin.

Here’s a trailer for the 15-hour TV adaptation by the visionary Fassbinder (1980):

Babylon BerlinAs to more recent recreation of the Weimar era,

  • Volker Kutscher, Babylon Berlin (2007)

is the first in a series featuring the detective Gereon Rath, with his beguiling protégée Charlotte Ritter. It recasts the decadence of the roaring 20s and the rise of fascism, with vivid period detail on exiled Russians and paramilitary forces. Yet again, the novels form the stimulus for a highly popular TV series:

Meanwhile David Young continues exploring the murky history of the GDR in Stasi winter (2020) through the struggles of detective Karin Müller, against a backdrop of escape attempts amidst a desolate, frozen northern landscape.

For Russia, I’ve been catching up on the Arkady Renko novels by Martin Cruz Smith. Gorky Park was published as early as 1981, a gripping tale of KGB and CIA espionage, ikon smuggling—and a sinister fabrication to quell dissidents:

It is the finding of the institute that criminals suffer from a psychological disturbance that we term pathoheterodoxy. There is theoretical as well as clinical backing for this discovery. In an unjust society a man may violate laws for valid social or economic reasons. In a just society there are no valid reasons except for mental illness. Recognising this fact protects the violator as well as the society whose law he attacks. It affords the violator and opportunity to be quarantined until his illness can be expertly treated.

Later in the series, Stalin’s ghost (2007) moves on to the Putin era, still haunted by the delusions of the USSR, as well as the Chechen war and mass graves.

For Hungary, the “Danube Blues” novels of Adam LeBor, himself an investigative journalist, are compelling. Starring the Roma detective Balthazar Kovacs, the themes of District VIII (2017) and Kossuth square (2019) are highly topical—including corruption, press freedom under authoritarian rule, and the plight of refugees.

Balthazar is the first in the family to progress to higher education. With his brother a leading figure in the Budapest underworld, he has torn loyalties. At university he meets Sarah, a Jewish student. He starts a PhD on the Roma Holocaust, but

after a couple of years he realised he had had enough of libraries and archives and extermination. He also realised he had no desire to be a disczigany, a decorative, token Gypsy.

To the horror of both his family and the “uber-liberal” Sarah, Balthazar decides to join the police force. Meanwhile Sarah, with whom he now has a son, rises in the field of gender studies. Even after they separate, she still depends on his introductions to the Roma world.

Evoking the ethnic mix of new immigrants (southern Slavs, Arabs, Africans, Russians, Chinese) alongside the gentrification of Budapest, LeBor adroitly interposes lessons on Hungarian history in imperial times and the Arrow Cross militia during World War Two.

* * *

Like Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee series, all these novels are not just engaging in themselves, with their suspenseful plot twists, but they document the whole texture of the society, drawing us towards history and people’s lives.

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