A Darker State by David Young

The body of a teenage boy is found weighted down in a lake. Karin Müller, newly appointed Major of the People’s Police, is called to investigate. But her power will only stretch so far, when every move she makes is under the watchful eye of the Stasi.

Then, when the son of Müller’s team member goes missing, it quickly becomes clear that there is a terrifying conspiracy at the heart of this case, one that could fast lead Müller and her young family into real danger.

Can she navigate this complex political web and find the missing boy, before it’s too late?

Paul Burke interviewed David Young for nbmagazine.co.uk last year when A Darker State was published. The first few questions here serve as a recap, to help set the scene:

Paul Burke: You did an MA in writing at City University, what impetus did that give your fiction career?

David Young: It was the key to my getting a deal – so I owe it a lot. I didn’t know when I started that the winner of the course prize got representation with its then sponsors, the Peters Fraser & Dunlop literary agency, and a young agent there, Adam Gauntlett, signed me at the shortlisting stage (Stasi Child went on to win the prize). Both my main tutors – Laura Wilson and Claire McGowan – are respected crime writers, and their input was invaluable. We were also encouraged to write the opening chapter of several different novels. I think that was a great idea, and gives a lot of other novel ideas to fall back on.

PB: A Darker State is the third book in the Karin Müller series set in East Germany during the Cold War era. What first attracted you to the idea of writing about East Germany in the 1970s?

DY: I suppose we all write what we’d like to read – or try to – and I’d enjoyed Child 44 and similar novels. But I was looking for something a bit different and realised no-one had yet attempted a crime series in the English language set in East Germany. The idea came via a tour to Germany with my former pop band (very much a ‘dad’s band’ for me – the tour was in my fiftieth year!) when most of the little venues that booked us were in the eastern part of the country, and that left a big impression – the fact that so much of the GDR infrastructure was still visible, though it’s disappearing fast.

PB: Your novels are very rich in detail and have a basis in real events, this must involve meticulous research. That must have been interesting, especially getting into the DDR archives and records. Could you tell us about what it was like to be there uncovering the dark past of a very secret state?

DY: Most of my research is done via memoirs, internet searches, and talking to former East German police officers. I haven’t really delved into the archives as such – my German isn’t good enough! But research is probably the part of the job I enjoy the most, especially my research trips to the former DDR.

PB: Karin Müller is great character but what made you chose a female as your lead investigator?

DY: I knew that Cold War-type spy novels often appeal to a male audience, but I wanted to draw in a female readership too. But it also reflects the reality of East Germany – where women played a much greater role in the workplace than their counterparts in the West at the time.

PB: What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

DY: Not being directly involved in office politics and being – to some extent – in charge of my own destiny. Research trips of course, and writing the first draft when your fictional world takes shape. What I hate is tearing it apart in the editing process.

Stasi 77 by David Young

Karin Müller of the German Democratic Republic’s People’s Police is called to a factory in the east of the country. A man has been murdered – bound and trapped as a fire burned nearby, slowly suffocating him. But who is he? Why was he targeted? Could his murderer simply be someone with a grudge against the factory’s nationalisation, as Müller’s Stasi colleagues insist? Why too is her deputy Werner Tilsner behaving so strangely? 

As more victims surface, it becomes clear that there is a cold-blooded killer out there taking their revenge. Soon Müller begins to realise that in order to solve these terrible crimes, she will need to delve into the region’s dark past. But are the Stasi really working with her on this case? Or against her? 

And now to Paul’s new questions about Stasi 77:

Paul Burke: Stasi 77 is the fourth Stasi Child novel. Once again the story is dark and edgy, do the things you find in your research shock you sometimes?

David Young: At times, yes. I think perhaps more so with the previous novel, A Darker State, which was inspired by medical research which today would appear quite shocking. Stasi 77 – although set mostly in East Germany in 1977, as the title suggests – harks back to, and draws its inspiration from, the Nazi era. Given what we know about the Nazis, there is perhaps little left to shock, horrific though that period of history is. The ‘historical crime’ at the heart of Stasi 77 is nevertheless quite appalling, perhaps in a number of ways. Firstly, what actually happened – which was so ghastly and senseless. Secondly, that ordinary citizens were involved – as opposed to just the SS. And thirdly, that in the West, although it was reported on widely at the time, today it is little known. I certainly hadn’t heard of it despite studying World War Two as part of my undergraduate degree course.

(N.B. There are four questions related to this historical crime at the end of the interview. They involve spoilers so I have moved them, I would advise enjoying this interview but avoiding those questions if you haven’t read the book yet – Paul.)

PB: Most of the citizens of DDR were ordinary Germans but many Nazis became communists after the war, some became operatives of the Stasi. Did their institutional, authoritarian background suited them to the new regime?

DY: There are documented examples of the Stasi recruiting former Nazis, yes. No doubt people trained in subterfuge and disinformation were useful to East Germany’s Ministry for State Security. But I think much of the time, Nazi party membership or involvement in war crimes was used as a lever against people in order to ‘persuade’ them to spy on behalf of the Stasi. That said, membership of the Hitler Youth, for example (which features in the novel), wasn’t particularly hidden. One East German friend told me that when a particular East German TV star claimed he’d never been a member of the Hitler Youth those claims were laughed at: almost everyone of a certain age in Germany at that time was a member of Hitler’s youth organisations. In the novel, Karin Müller – my main detective character – perhaps overreacts to some of the things she discovers.

PB: The Stasi, Ministry for State Security, have a reputation for ruthless efficiency, the real world ‘big brother’, is it deserved?

DY: To a large extent, yes, in that there were so many official and unofficial agents, and East Germans were the most spied on ever. The Stasi were indeed ruthless, and if you visit the Stasi museum in Leipzig for example, you can hear its leader Erich Mielke’s exhortations to execute its opponents if necessary – without trial. At the same time, a lot of the detail collected by its spying operations and held in its vast archive of files was mundane and irrelevant. What’s interesting is that if you hunt out interviews with former Stasi officers on YouTube, it’s very hard to find any who are in any way repentant. In their view, what they did was necessary to defend the integrity of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik.

PB: Tell us about the Stasi Special Commission for taking sensitive/political cases from the Volkspolizei (criminal police)? In the novel Müller is given sensitive cases and Jäger, Oberst in the Stasi, interferes in her Volkspolizei investigations.

DY: The Stasi’s Special Commissions did indeed exist – and they did take sensitive cases away from the Volkspolizei’s criminal wing, which my character Karin Müller works for. But my Serious Crimes Department which she heads up is a fictional creation, set up by the Volkspolizei in order to – to some extent – counter the effect of the Special Commissions. One case which a Stasi Special Commission has been shown to be involved with, a series of infanticides at a Leipzig hospital, was the inspiration for my second novel, Stasi Wolf.

PB: The reality is that the Stasi and Volkspolizei operated separately most of the time. Is it true to say that the Volkspolizei dealt with crime and matters of policing just the same as the British police do here? What was your impression of the policemen you interviewed as research?

DY: That’s certainly what former East German detectives will insist! To some extent, I’m sure it was true. But the Volkspolizei were often as reviled by the public as the Stasi. In reality, each Volkspolizei unit would have at least an unofficial Stasi informer within its ranks, even if his or her colleagues had no idea of his or her identity. The detectives I interviewed came across as completely honest to me, but some did admit that high level cooperation between the Volkspolizei and Stasi did take place, even though the rank and file in the police were not necessarily aware of it at the time. So in my novels I perhaps stretch the relationship between police and Stasi – but it’s not necessarily so very far from the truth.

PB: I get the sense that you meticulously plan and research your novels, is that the case? Your experience as a journalist must come in handy.

DY: Writing journalism and writing fiction are very different, but what’s true and useful is that journalists are used to meeting deadlines and word counts, and to writing quickly. I do indeed do plenty of research for each book – it’s one of the aspects of the job I enjoy most. One of the reasons that I like to plan out my novels carefully is that it then means I can write first drafts quickly. That immerses you totally in the whole process, and in that way new ideas emerge. While I’m writing that first draft, I like to live and breathe it – much to the annoyance of my wife, as I won’t do anything else for weeks.

PB: What’s it like returning to the DDR for research purposes, evidence of the world you write about must be rapidly disappearing?

DY: It’s great. And it’s surprising how much of the infrastructure still survives. There’s still a very different feel between the eastern and western parts of Germany. But yes, that’s changing fast.

PB: The relationships between Karin Müller and her colleague, Tilsner, and the Stasi Oberst, Jäger, are always volatile but they take some dramatic twists in Stasi 77. Do you enjoy exploring those dynamics?

DY: I hope that’s the key to the attraction of the books. What I’ve tried to do is write each so that they are stand-alones. Anyone should be able to pick up Stasi 77 and enjoy it as a stand-alone novel, as it’s a separate case, then go back and read the others out of order. Several readers have done that with the previous three novels. But I suppose the thread that glues them together is the shifting relationships between these three main characters. There have been heavy hints in the previous books that something fairly major binds Tilsner to Jäger – in Stasi 77 we get to find out what that is.

PB: Müller has suffered for her investigations in earlier novels, Stasi 77 is no different. How attached are you to Karin Müller and how do you feel about putting her through the ringer?

DY: She’s a fictional character – I don’t get attached to her. I am aware that if she always survives she’s a bit like one of those toys that if you knock it over, it bounces straight back up. So perhaps one day I’ll have to kill her off. Maybe that will be in book five…

PB: Karin Müller has a rebel soul but she still thinks like an East German. Is it difficult writing from the point of view of a person educated and brought up under an authoritarian regime/mindset?

DY: That was what I always set out to do. I thought it would be horribly dull simply to have another East/bad, West/good type novel. In reality, everything was much more nuanced, and we saw in 2007/8 how precarious capitalism can be. So I do try to imagine everything through Müller’s eyes, and try to anticipate how she would really react. At the end of the day for almost everyone, your family and the money in your pocket comes first. She’s a rebel up to a point – at least in her head — but she always has to make compromises, otherwise she wouldn’t last very long. And, at the end of the day, I think she still believes in the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number.

PB: Karin Müller will return in Stasi Winter, can you tell us anything about that novel and whether Karin has a long-term future?

DY: Her future? Well, it depends on readers! Stasi Winter (only a working title at the moment) is the last of five books under contract to my current publisher. Whether they want to buy any more will depend on how many copies of Stasi 77 and the others in the series are sold. There’s a limitless number of stories in East Germany, so the series could run and run – but it’s probably time for me to try something else. If she does go out in Stasi Winter then it will be with a bang. It’s probably more of a straight thriller than a crime story. And it’s literally chilling – setting in East Germany’s ‘Catastrophe Winter’ of 1978/79. The worst of the conditions were on Rügen, where my debut Stasi Child started. And the story comes full circle, because the actual Stasi child, Irma Behrendt, returns to the centre of the action. More than that, I’m not giving away!

(And these are the questions that give away something of the plot, so please only read on if you’re happy to see potential spoilers.)

PB: The novel deals with the aftermath of a war crime. Can you tell us about the Gardelegen massacre?

DY: Perhaps first I should give a warning – spoilers ahead. By talking about the massacre, we destroy some of the suspense of the novel. In the book, we’ve deliberately put maps and a dedication in the back matter, rather than at the front, to avoid this. In some ways, I’d rather readers plunge into the book without knowing the background. Having got that caveat out of the way, in summary the massacre was the murder of more than a thousand forced labourers who’d worked mostly at the Mittelbau Dora camp and its satellites, building V1 and V2 rockets, Hitler’s ‘vengeance’ weapons. As the Allies advanced, the half-starved prisoners were transported or forced to march towards other labour camps. Some became marooned near Gardelegen. They were herded into a barn on the outskirts of the town, which was set alight. Most roasted alive, some were shot, and only a handful survived. Photographs of the aftermath are horrific. The twisted logic of the perpetrators was that otherwise the prisoners might run amok and attack the local population. It was an utterly senseless crime – within hours, the town had surrendered to the Americans.

PB: Why is the massacre so little known? Was it covered up by the DDR, a matter of war crime tribunal fatigue, or the need to move on? Every nation has to look to the future but we must not forget the past.

DY: It’s never been covered up, as such, and at the time was well known, with photographs of the charred victims carried in news magazines as examples of the barbarity of the Nazis. Perhaps the fact that the site then became part of East Germany might explain it being slightly overlooked historically – but it may simply be that, when considering sheer numbers of those killed, Gardelegen is overshadowed by what happened at Auschwitz etc. What is unusual about Gardelegen is the timing (coming just before the surrender), the method, and that so many were killed in one place in such a tragic way. The East German authorities built a memorial there, as part of their drive against fascism. But only now are things really taking shape, with a new information centre being built at the site: the foundation stone was laid last year and work is well underway. In terms of war crimes trials, one of the main architects was convicted, but the man considered chiefly responsible – Gerhard Thiele — managed to avoid trial and lived out his days in relative comfort in West Germany in a large house in Düsseldorf. His wife continued to live in East Germany and never gave away his whereabouts.

PB: The experience of slave labour under the Nazis is horrendous. The Kapos, Kameradschaftpolizei, the name could be ironic, is one of the uncomfortable truths of the war we don’t like to face up to but we should shouldn’t we?

DY: Some of the Kapos were of course recruited from criminal gangs, as opposed to the political prisoners, such as members of the French resistance. But I don’t think any of us who haven’t lived through something like that could say how we would react. If you were promised an easier life, more food and better living conditions by guarding your fellow prisoners, then that must have been a very seductive offer when work and living conditions were so awful for the rest of the forced labourers. At Gardelegen, as I understand it, some of the Kapos were armed and took part in the massacre.

PB: Did you feel a responsibility to the dead of Gardelegen in writing Stasi 77?

DY: I did, and do, feel slightly uneasy about bolting a fictional tale as part of a commercial crime fiction novel onto a real-life event, and that might open me to some criticism. I could, of course, have fictionalised Gardelegen completely – invented a different town name, etc. But I felt that would be a cop out. Part of my motivation for writing the novel is to open people’s eyes to what happened and what the results of xenophobia and racial hatred can be when taken to extremes – something that’s extremely relevant in the polarised world we live in today. If as a result of reading my novel people want to go on and visit the memorial site, and the new visitor centre, in my view that can only be a good thing. And the 1945 end of the story is a fictionalisation of real-life events – although it features fictional characters, everything that happened actually happened to someone, according to the history books and memoirs.

Our thanks to David and Paul for this excellent Q&A.

Stasi 77 by David Young
Zaffre 9781785767142 pbk Apr 2019