Berlin Noir couldn’t have come along at a more opportune time for me, I wanted to read a couple of German authors I’d not seen in English until this collection. I recently interviewed Simone Buchholz, winner of the 2018 German Crime Fiction Prize, which is where the names of Max Annas and Matthias Wittekindt came up. That for me is one of the reasons why I value this series from Akashic so highly: it often introduces authors who are popular, if not vital, parts of their own country’s crime writing scene but have yet to be discovered in America and Britain. Over the years many an author got their first English language outing here and Berlin Noir will no doubt be a gateway for some of the writers featured.
As Wörtche notes in his introduction, we are most familiar with Berlin crime/thriller writing in two contexts. First, the pre-war Weimar/Third Reich era (Philip Kerr, Babylon Berlin). Secondly, the post-war Berlin that epitomised the Cold War (le Carré et al.). This collection is very modern, the stories are set now and reflect on contemporary concerns. They demonstrate a dynamism and originality that shows just how important a part of the euro-noir genre German writing is. There are thirteen stories here, as diverse as the city they are set in, each one is from in a different part of the German capital, and although they are disparate with very different intentions, a picture emerges of a troubled, multi-cultural, vibrant city that has always had its own distinct character. The themes in the stories are, of course, universal: racism, immigration, sexism, mental health, law enforcement and social context. Here’s a flavour of what to expect.
Part I. Stress in the City.
Dora by Zoë Beck (Bahnhof Zoo). The story opens with the grim description of rescuing a homeless woman from the street, she’s twenty years younger than you might think. She will have to be cut from her clothes, which are covered in filth, grime, blood, sperm and vomit. The narrator is her brother, Dora has been cleaned up many times but always wound up back on the street, it’s her illness:
“So, take a good look at her. Somewhere under the dirt and the stench, it’s still her.”
We know it will end badly, tragedy is around is just around the corner but, perhaps, it’s not what you are thinking. This poignant tale of homelessness, mental illness and family helplessness is a reminder: ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’
The Beauty of Kenilworth Ivy by Susanne Dayton (Schöneberg). A story that hints at environmental concerns and challenges gentrification:
“But now well-off people were suddenly taking over, people who could afford higher rents, or who simply brought their own apartments…”
The darkness is in the effect this has on the narrator’s ‘missions’, plants are not just pretty to look at though.
Local Train by MaX Annas (Neukölln). Kareem and Issam watch the track, they are waiting for a train to pass, they picked up their victim earlier after a football match, he is tied and gagged at their feet. They hide in the shadows from potential witnesses, getting ready to ‘do it’. Luckily Annas’ first English novel, The Wall, was published by Catalyst Press this month too, so I detect common themes: racism, identity and jumping to conclusions.
Part II. Cops and Gangsters.
Cum Cops Kai Hensal (Altglienicke). Bild carried a story on 20th June, 2017 about Berlin police officers sent home from a G20 conference for bad behaviour. This fiction plays on that theme. Jens, one of the disgraced exhibitionist cops, arrives home to be met by his wife Vera’s disgust, anger and incomprehension. The other officers have problems with their families too. It all leads to an incident in a club late one night. This story deals with group mentality but also having perspective in life.
The Invisible Man by Matthias Wittekindt (Friedrichshain). A young woman sitting on a bench is murdered. A young man is used to being overlooked by others, ignored even. He becomes mixed up in the investigation, he points the police to a lead. The victim may be Italian, the German police invite an Italian officer on board the investigation but are they all missing a crucial detail?
Part III. Berlin Scenes.
Kaddish for Lazar by Michael Wuliger (Charlottenburg). A Jewish journalist writes a piece for Blitz magazine on legendary politician Mark Lazar. Was his recent death an accident, suicide or murder? Lazar arrived in Germany a penniless immigrant from the Ukraine twenty years ago under a scheme to take in Jews from the disintegrating Soviet Union. Conspiracy theories of political intrigue abound, talks of jealousy – but the investigation uncovers some surprising facts about Lazar.
Fashion Week by Katja Bonnet (Mitte). Thea Stauffer has stabbed Ansgar to death. Why? What turned an ordinary woman into a killer?
Of course, I can’t say I liked each story equally well but I enjoyed all of them and I learned a lot from several. My favourite because it is so grounded in the modern malaise and has a potent social commentary is Dora by Zoë Beck. Max Annas manages to get a deal of humour into his story despite the serious theme. Overall, this is an original and subversive collection. A welcome addition to one to the most fascinating long running series in crime fiction. There are nearly one hundred titles in print and a further twelve planned in the next year. This Berlin collection now ranks among my favourites along side, the original Brooklyn Noir, and collections from London, Dublin, Mexico and Havana.
The beauty of short stories is that you can dip in and out but I found Berlin Noir engaging enough to go for one sitting.
Translated by Lucy Jones.
Paul Burke 5/4
Berlin Noir edited by Thomas Wörtche
Akashic Books 9781617756320 pbk Apr 2019