German Crime Novels
Jakob Arjouni: Happy Birthday, Turk!
Georg Klein: Libidissi
Jörg Fauser: The Snowman
Thomas Hettche: The Arbogast Case
The renowned German-Swiss playwright and novelist, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, did not regard crime fiction as being beneath him; working within the genre he concentrated on guilt while hinting at a remote possibility of redemption. In his crime novel, The Pledge, recently made into a Hollywood movie, he wrote: "You don't try to get mixed up with the kind of reality that is always slipping through our fingers. Instead, you set up a world that you can manage. That world may be perfect - who knows? - but it's also a lie."
Others go after that elusive reality. They’re a wild mob, German crime writers, wrestling with the bricks and mortar of consciousness, and engaged thus are very different from the neat fantasists with superficial sociological interests who produce Australia’s police, forensic-scientist and/or private investigator stories. Tragic hero himself, Friedrich Glauser, the Viennese born author of THUMBPRINT (Bitter Lemon Press, 197pp) - first published in a 1930s periodical – was addicted to opium and its derivatives. He wrote this book while in Waldau asylum, and died in 1938 on the eve of his wedding. He has left to us his dour policeman, Sergeant Studer, who is trying to work out if the person whom he cuts down and saves, having chanced upon him dangling in a prison cell, is as obviously guilty of the murder of a travelling salesman as he seems to be. And so the story develops. But the principal character here, indeed the culprit, seems to be small town Switzerland and the generally inward looking Swiss themselves. Sergeant Studer’s attempts to get around the natives’ mistrustful connivance in the matter of a murder keeps us turning the pages.
The ‘novel’, declaring itself a art form within which the narrative is chopped to pieces by an author high on creativity, lost touch with its story-telling origins in the first quarter of the 20th century, around the same time as the ‘popular’ novel became caught up with marketing and best-seller lists. More recently there has been the ‘book club’ novel aimed at bunches of well meaning individuals keen to read and talk tangentially about books of artistic and social significance by the kinds of writers who win Booker and/or even Nobel prizes.
And all the time your average Joe or Marie simply wants to get lost in memorable stories connecting with those tales told around fires through dark nights in the oh-so-long-ago, without sparing a thought for arty niceties like ‘point of view’, or indeed the ‘correct’, the ‘educated’ use of the language in which a story has the good or bad fortune to be developed.
Thirty or so years ago earnest academics took to analyzing popular crime fiction and delivering papers explaining its appeal – papers read to other academics equally intent on decoding popular culture while connecting it’s products to weird theories such as those of Carl Jung! Thus, a private-investigator style crime novel might be explained away as an account of some Everyman character heading off in search of truth, encountering tricksters and evil doers along the way, suffering, lusting, but getting there (wherever it might be) in the end.
Jakob Arjouni’s HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TURK! (No Exit Press, 191pp) fills the PI bill at the same time as offering a lot more than that bill may be thought to demand. Reading it brings to mind Günter Grass’s 1980 novel titled (in English) HEAD BIRTHS, in which an educated and affluent German couple of breeding age travel the world wondering ‘yes to baby’ and ‘no to baby’ while back in their native land Turkish workers with limited citizenship rights lead vital lives and watch their children play on the streets. Well, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TURK! was published a mere seven years after HEAD BIRTHS and first appeared in English translation in 1994. It’s a pretty standard PI novel, with Kemal Kayankaya working out of the required dingy office and being visited there by a woman. She’s not your Hollywood style dangerous beauty with legs crossed and lighting up a cigarette, but “in a mourning veil and thick gold earrings. She wore her hair in a severe braid, and there were shadows under her eyes.” Like Kemal, this woman is Turkish. Her husband has been killed in Frankfurt’s brothel district, and the cops aren’t putting much effort into working out why. So Kemal takes the job and finds that there’s a drug connection. Along the way we share his resentment at the manner in which he is treated by the police, in fact by more or less anybody lost to xenophobia. It’s a good read, fast and fairly furious with a host of the required low life encounters, plus neat injections of social realist detail.
Georg Klein’s LIBIDISSI (Picador, 198pp) appeared in 1998 and was translated into English in 2001 when it developed a following among people who’d done a lot of literature/cultural studies without reading Don DeLillo’s WHITE NOISE, which put a lot of that stuff into comic perspective. In LIBIDISSI the central character uses the first person form of ‘I=Spaik’ at some future time in a remarkably BLADERUNNER-esque city located in a kind of ‘East’ of the European mind. It could be argued that this novel, and it’s a short one (thank heavens), has a right and proper go at divorcing sci-fi-cum-crime literature from the tyrannies of best-sellerdom; it may even be thought to connect with aspects of the declared-deceased modernist tradition. On the other hand the assembling of what has been received by a fragmented consciousness, disconnected from linear narrative, isn’t of itself sufficient to enthrall. Authors who discard compelling narrative must replace it with something equally commanding, with something as riveting as, say, Leopold Bloom’s chain of thought in Ulysses, or maybe a really creepy, Kafkaesque conflict between an individual’s notion of justice and authority’s heavy hand.
From LIBIDISSI’s hip randomness it’s a big step up to THE SNOWMAN (Bitter Lemon Press, 249pp), which appeared in Germany in 1981 and took twenty years to make it into English. It seem that the author, Jörg Fauser lived the life of his central character, right up to his untimely death wandering onto a motorway and right into the path of a truck. Our fictional anti-hero here is Siegfried Blum, the ultimate loser-adventurer. His is a soul attracted by pretty much everything in this life that nice people warn against. We meet him first in Malta, close to forty years old, trying to sell a stash of Danish pornographic magazines. Just before the local cops eject him from their Mediterranean patch he chances upon a lovely big load of cocaine. READ ON! The source of this book’s considerable charm is the good, well actually pretty bad, Herr Blum, and upon his capacity to court disaster. All of which gives a dark tale of paranoia and life in the underworld a comic edge; just enough oblique humour to cause a reader to smile at this rag-tag life of ours and its underworld vicissitudes.
Which, with Thomas Hettche’s THE ARBOGAST CASE (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 344pp), brings us hard up against crime fiction’s subject matter: this too real life. Here, unlike in Friedrich Glauser’s THUMBPRINT, the travelling salesman isn’t the victim. Indeed he’s judged to be the criminal, guilty of killing a female East German refugee who had been living in a displaced person’s camp. That was 1953. His name is Hans Arbogast and, put away for life, he insists he is innocent. At the time it was a real and celebrated case, made more so by the follow-up of a writer and a lawyer challenging the court’s decision. This representation of the crime, court case and its aftermath reads not as a factual account but rather like a novel… with powerful erotic overtones connecting to the sexual violence of the murder. This heat spills over into the consciousness of others involved with the challenge to the court’s judgment. As a bonus there is a strong sense of the time, of the East-West standoff and its influence on the development of post 1940s German attitudes.
Glauser, Friedrich: Thumbprint / translated by Mike Mitchell. - London : Bitter Lemon Press, 2004. - 197 pages ISBN 1-904738-00-1 Original title: Wachtmeister Studer (German)
Arjouni, Jakob: Happy Birthday, Turk! / translated by Anselm Hollo. - London : No Exit Press, 2005. - 191 pages ISBN 1-84243-150-1 Original title: Happy Birthday, Türke (German)
Fauser, Jörg: The Snowman / translated by Anthea Bell. - London : Bitter Lemon Press, 2004. - 249 pages ISBN 1-904738-05-2 Original title: Der Schneemann (German)
Klein, Georg: Libidissi / translated by John Brownjohn. - London : Picador, 2001. - 199 pages ISBN 0-330-39241-7 Original title: Libidissi (German)
Hettche, Thomas: The Arbogast Case / translated by Elizabeth Gaffney.. - New York : Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2003. - 344 pages ISBN 0-374-13812-5 Original title: Der Fall Arbogast (German)