German crime fiction Considerable quantity, increasing quality

Successful, but not always great literature: German crime fiction
Successful, but not always great literature: German crime fiction | Photo (detail): © Paulista/Fotolia

“Who dunnit?” – that’s what most crime fiction is about. Although crime novels are extremely popular in Germany, only few make it into literature’s premier league.

There is a longstanding and solid tradition of crime fiction in Germany. Right from the start, that is to say from the nineteenth century, the leading French, English and American authors were translated into German. German authors also contributed early on to the development of international crime fiction, precursors including for example Friedrich Schiller’s The Criminal from Lost Honour (1786) and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Mademoiselle de Scudéry (1819). Films made in the first decades of the twentieth century proved to have epochal significance: Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and Fritz Lang (M) had a major influence on the modern aesthetics of noir in film and literature.

The hunt for the killer is the main focus

To this day, the collective consciousness of what constitutes “crime fiction” is shaped by the “whodunnit” model that evolved primarily in the English crime literature of the 1920s – Agatha Christie being one of the leading authors in this genre. The more realistic and “hard-boiled” detective fiction that emerged simultaneously in the USA, courtesy of writers such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, was unable to attain much success by comparison, especially since the US authors were considered to have a potentially harmful effect on young people up until the 1960s.
The US police procedural by the New Yorker Ed McBain, to which the Swedish authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö added a social criticism dimension in their ten Martin Beck novels, then gave crucial impetus in the 1960s to a new brand of socially critical West German crime fiction. The following decades saw a broad embracing of international crime literature in Germany, a trend that continues to this day. Germany has a penchant for translation, as well as ambitious publishing houses that seek to introduce obscure novels from around the world to a German readership. Prominent examples of translations into German include the Metro series published by the Zurich-based company Unionsverlag, and more recently the Liebeskind publishing firm, which has brought American noir authors to Germany who are appreciated only by a high-brow reading public even in their own country.

Regional crime novels are particularly popular

Nowadays, crime fiction written in German, and indeed the public’s enthusiasm for the crime genre in all types of media, do not differ significantly from the trends seen in other western countries. With one exception: both in literature and in TV productions, the phenomenon of regionalization is particularly striking. This is most noticeable in the television series Tatort, which has been broadcast on Sunday evenings since 1971. It features numerous teams of investigators, each working in a different German city. On the book market, the concept of the regional crime novel has become so ubiquitous that it seems as if there is no longer a single town with more than 10,000 inhabitants that does not have its own team of fictional detectives. Tourist hotspots like the Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden are even home to several fictional sleuths. The Cologne firm Emons-Verlag, which published the first regional crime novel in 1984, lists 31 towns or districts in Bavaria alone in which it publishes crime novels; in the Allgäu region, there are no fewer than nine Emons authors, with 15 novels between them. Nonetheless, the “regional crime novel” is not a literary category in its own right, but rather a marketing ploy – with large numbers of mostly low-quality crime novels being published under this label.

Reliant on commercial sales

This example alone makes it quite clear that it is pointless to talk about the German crime novel per se. As in the world of fiction in general, there is only a handful of authors who deserve to be taken seriously for their literature. Since crime fiction is a genre that is reliant almost entirely on commercial sales – hardly any grants or other funding are available – there is a wide gap between bestselling authors and those of literary relevance. Only rarely do publishers invest in authors who are deemed “difficult to understand”, “complicated” or “too political”.
However, there are also many instances in which the wheat is separated from the chaff in the German literary scene. Crime fiction columns in the more serious feature pages, and increasingly the world of literary scholarship and a number of literary awards, are helping to bring about a shift in assessment standards and templates. Novels that reject the “whodunnit” formula, are intertextual and complex in design and approach the crime with all the narrative forms of modern literature, are increasingly being acknowledged as crime literature.
While German readers appear to be amply provided for by international imports, things do not look too rosy when it comes to the export of relevant German crime fiction. Andrea Maria Schenkel (The Murder Farm) is the only bestselling author of literary merit who is known in the anglophone world. Even Doris Gercke for example, a left-wing feminist author who is very well-known for her character Bella Block, has only had one of her more than 20 novels translated into English. Although the situation is somewhat better in other language regions – German crime novels are very popular in Korea, for instance – by the end of 2016 there was still no English translation for example of Friedrich Ani, one of Germany’s most fascinating crime writers in literary terms. And yet his writing, which gives a nuanced voice to the poor, the marginalized and the socially deprived, would certainly enrich the world of international crime literature.