Portrait of Jan Costin Wagner

Giving word to the unutterable

Jan Costin Wagner. Copyright: David Biene
Jan Costin Wagner. Copyright: David Biene
Jan Costin Wagner writes atmospheric compact crime novels that push the boundaries of the genre. He is interested in extreme situations and how people deal with them. And that in turn seems to be interesting more and more people worldwide.

Thank goodness for the middle name, otherwise the crime writer Jan Costin Wagner might accidentally be confused with the lyricist Jan Wagner. He has often been asked about this but in fact has never met his namesake. The respective publishers of the two Wagners take it all in good part and frequently swop parcels of books. Although it would be hard to confuse the novels of Jan Costin Wagner: stories of frosty landscapes and equally frost characters in Finland provide perfect backdrops on which to project stone-cold crimes. At the same time Wagner’s books are packed with people because of his interest in how both wrongdoer and victim feel, why someone is the way they are.

Copyright: The Harvil PressThis is how Wagner is pushing the boundaries of the genre: writing neither a typical crime thriller, nor a simple novel. This is why he is successful. The author (born in 1972 in Langen, Hessen) won a prize for his very first novel Nachtfahrt (2002) but finally had his big breakthrough in 2007 with Das Schweigen when it won the German Krimipreis 2008. Eismond (Ice Moon) was published in eight countries, quickly followed by a further four countries, including Turkey. It was so successful in America that it was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Das Schwiegen has been translated into eight languages, including Bulgarian and Korean.

Murder, manslaughter and the mourning process

“The thing that started me writing was the desire to put something down in language that cannot be expressed any other way, to exemplify extreme situations,” Wagner said. “And murder and manslaughter are particularly effective extreme situations.” In Ice Moon it is reflected in Kommissar Joentaa, who is trying to get to grips with the death of his wife. Here the mourning process adds up to a universal, human extreme situation that appealed to Wagner: “What do you do, when someone you love dies?”

In Das Schweigen, there is on the one hand the paedophile perpetrator who is confronted with guilt at a moment when he thought he had overcome it all and on the other, the policeman Ketola, who just before he is about to retire is confronted by case that becomes very personal. Both novels are set in Finland. In Germany, where stories from Scandinavia are already very popular, they are more successful than Wagner’s other two novels Nachtfahrt and Schattentag (2005). The 36-year old however is not simply following a trend. He has been closely linked to Finland for over 18 years, and his wife is Finnish. However Wagner says that the location is rather the result of the characters’ predisposition than anything else.

Getting close to reality by means of fiction

All of Wagner’s novels have endings that run counter to expectation. They don’t offer solutions. This is not possible, he feels, because life itself offers no solutions. These situations are not black and white, with the good on one side and the evil on the other. “In my novels I aim to encapsulate a moment of comprehension – through leaving things out. I believe that writing fiction can get so close to reality and reveal the feelings that are common to all.” That is why Wagner does not like classical crime novels or regional crime thrillers. This in turn is an unusual perspective for someone who worked as a journalist. “I wasn’t a very good journalist,” Wagner interrupts, laughing, “I much prefer to create the characters myself when writing fiction, so that I can really involve myself with the themes.”

Wagner was 29 years old when his debut novel was published. Nevertheless he cannot be compared to similarly-aged writers such as Christian Kracht or Judith Herrmann. One critic even invented a term to describe Wagner “the anti-writer of pop literature”. It doesn’t bother him. You have marketing, and you have content. Admittedly Wagner is also different from countless other contemporaries who can typically call on a manuscript in a drawer or membership of a writers’ group in the past. Quite simply, between studying German Language and History and doing voluntary work he wrote the unscrupulous story Nachtfahrt, and then by chance found a literary agent and was introduced by them to Eichborn-Verlag. He still works with both of them today. Wagner gets his inspiration from the newspapers. “There you find statements about what happened, but no answers. This format does not explain what led to the events.” On the other hand Wagner believes that the information overload of the modern day is ensuring that we no longer ask existential questions. His new novel will be about this – amongst other things. It is going to be another Joentaa story and will be published just in time for the 2009 Leipzig Book Fair. Who knows, this might be the moment the crime writer Wagner finally meets Wagner, the lyricist.

Kerstin Fritzsche is a journalist and literary editor of the Hanoverian city magazine Stadtkind Hannovermagazin.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion

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October 2008

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