In all the recent talk of Euro noir and Nordic noir, Germany has been overlooked. The novels that have been translated for the most part seem to have arrived quietly. Maybe we focus too much on our own crime and spy literature in/about Germany (I’ve introduced this feature with a reference to that first) to the detriment of some fantastic local writing. From serial killer popular fiction to complex psychological dramas, there are some crackers here.

I have selected a number of British and American novels set in Germany (any I mention I really like):

The Brits in Deutschland has to begin with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré, the most influential spy novel of all time, the game changer. This novel took spy stories out of the realm of fantasy, James Bond, and placed them firmly in the dirty real world. From then on it was anti-hero, not hero, all the way. Funeral in Berlin by Len Deighton latched on to this trend and the spy with no name, Harry Palmer in the Michael Caine films, was born, dirty but also a little tongue in cheek. Another novel of the sixties which has slipped into obscurity is The Junkers by Piers Paul Read, a very real portrait of Germany at the time (1960s), loaded with grey areas, shady characters and bad motives. Heart’s Journey into Winter by James Buchan is part spy story, part love story, set in 1983 it describes how close we came to a nuclear confrontation, chilling but beautiful (he is a much more talented writer than his grandfather John Buchan). The Berlin Trilogy by Philip Kerr brought us Bernie Gunther, one of the great anti-hero detective creations. The novels in this volume cover the pre- and post-war periods. Essentially a cop who wants to get on with his job, Gunther winds up working for Heydrich – evocative, sharp, witty. Zoo Station by David Downing, and the subsequent ‘Station’ novels are spy stories set in and around the war and have a handle on the lawlessness of the times, the political situation, the allied occupation and the legacy of Nazism. Luke McCallin’s The Man from Berlin introduces Gregor Reinhardt, German officer and detective, set during the war. In a change of pace, Fatherland by Robert Harris imagines a Germany where Hitler is still alive in 1964, Joe Kennedy, the pro-nazi father of John, Robert, Edward et al., is president of the USA. The past has been successfully buried until now…

Germany has long held a fascination for the Americans too: Rosa by Jonathan Rabb cleverly weaves the hunt for a serial killer into the decline of Weimar and the brutal state murder of Rosa Luxembourg. Alan First’s series of spy novels, particularly highlighting the story of individuals making a small but significant contribution to the war effort, they cover pre-war and WWII, Dark Star is one of the best historical spy novels ever written. Rebecca Cantrell covers some of the same territory Kerr popularised, pre-war Germany, in A Trace of Smoke. Hannah Vogel hunts the murderer of her brother in decadent 1931 Berlin.

Germans in Germany and abroad:

Babylon Berlin by Volker Kutscher. Cologne cop Gereon Rath comes to Berlin to escape the stigma of shooting a suspect in his home city. He is soon in hot water in the capital too. Brilliantly evocative of the era and the politics of Germany on the cusp of Nazism. Complex and witty. *****

Dr. Mabuse by Norbert Jacques. The evil genius who makes Moriarty look like an amateur. Dr. Mabuse has a dream of setting up his own kingdom in Brazil, he will be a god to his people. In order to fund this venture he is prepared to mastermind all manner of crime before he leaves Germany. He is a man or the devil? Set during the interwar years this is a surreal vision of the rise of Nazism. ****

Violetta by Pieke Biermann. Set in Berlin just before the wall came down. Detective Karin Lietze returns from her holiday to a serial killer attacking foreign women and stamping them with the first letter of their country of origin, a serial killer murdering men after having sex with them and a group hell bent on punishing men for violence against women. Wickedly dark, a lot of fun but also tense and gripping. ****

The Other Child by Charlotte Link. Set in Scarborough, a young child is brutally murdered, the police are baffled, a copy cat crime piles on the pressure. Dark secrets all the way back to the evacuation of children to Scarborough during the war emerge. Moody and page turning. ***

Perfume by Patrick Suskind. A startling novel about a young man who becomes a perfumer in 18th century Paris, he is seeking to distil the essence of woman into a bottle, which is not so good for his victims. Shocking, erotically charged thriller. *****

Plan D by Simon Urban. East Germany is on the verge of collapse, a friend of the GDR Chairman is murdered. Inspector Wegener must work with West German police to find a killer in the stasi. A sprawling modern spy/crime story, epic in size and ambition. ****

Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr An ordinary law-abiding young woman suddenly commits a brutal murder in front of a crowd in a park, why? It appears to be random, she doesn’t appear to know why herself, the police have their culprit, she was literally caught red-handed. Still the question remains: Why? A complex psychological thriller, powerful and raw. Now a series on Netflix starring Jessica Beal. ****

Thumbprint by Friedrich Glauser. One of the originators of German crime fiction. Another story about a murder that appears to be an open and shut case. A salesman is killed, the suspect is to hand. What actually happens is much more complex. Glauser spent much of his adult life in prison or in mental hospitals, but his insight into the darkness of the human soul is razor sharp. ****

The Winter of the Lions by Jan Costin Wagner. Kimmo Joentaa likes to spend Christmas drunk following the death of his wife. His melancholy is interrupted by a young woman who seems disturbed and the murder of two men, one his colleague. Set in Finland. Dark, clever, involving. *****

Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus. A woman falls from a bridge on to a motorway, was she pushed? When Kirchoff and von Bodenstein investigate they find that two 17-year-old girls went missing in her village more than a decade ago, how is it all connected? No one in the village is talking but then another girl goes missing. Popular page turner. ***

Therapy by Sebastian Fitzek. Victor Larenz is a psychologist, his daughter has gone missing, years later a woman comes forward, she’s a schizophrenic, does she have information about missing Josy? A strong psychological gripper. ***

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. A small act of defiance that stands for truth and justice in the face of Nazi oppression of the German people. This would be remarkable if written now, but as Fallada wrote this novel at the end of WWII, it is all the more impressive for it’s clear understanding of the times the nation just suffered. Astoundingly good. *****

Happy Birthday Turk by Jakob Arjouni. Kemel Kayankaya investigates the death of a Turkish worker in the red light district of frankfurt. A private eye of Turkish origin has to not only solve crimes but fight racism, casual and organised while doing so. Insightful, witty, well plotted. ****

Tretjak by Max Landorff. This is a psychological masterpiece. Gabriel Tretjak is a fixer, you want a problem to go away he’s your man. Then someone starts messing with his life. Intelligent, gripping and streets better than anything published now and called a psychological novel. *****

The Sweetness of Life by Paulus Hochgatterer. As Christmas approaches, a young girl is playing with her grandfather but when he answers the door he is murdered. Psychiatrist Horn is working with Detective Kovacs on the case. He has to find a way to get the girl to talk. Gripping psychological thriller. ****

Self’s Murder by Bernhard Schlink. Famous for the beautiful and poignant The Reader, Schlink is also the author of a fine series of detective stories. PI Gerhard Self comes out of retirement to find a missing investor in a private bank. It leads to him getting mixed up with money laundering, mafia and murder. Original and literary. ****

I was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia. A man is murdered in the back of a taxi, rather than report it the taxi driver takes a chance on a better life and swaps identity with the dead man. He has no idea how dark his life is going to get with his new identity. Think Patricia Highsmith, just as good. ****

Crime and Guilt by Ferdinand Von Schirach. Two collections of short stories by a renowned German criminal lawyer with some basis in fact, drawn from a long career. Poignant, witty, diabolical and mysterious. The one about the American assassin who only appears in custody because he killed a boy who tried to mug him, claiming self-defence, is chilling. Crime is much better than guilt but they are fascinating stories. ***** and ****

The Murderer in Ruins, Wolf Children, and The Forger by Cay Rademacher. A superb trilogy of stories set in post-war Hamburg. The detective Frank Stave thrillers are dark stories set against the background of a ruined city: feral children, black market, gangsters, Nazis, British occupation, forgers, a starving population. Intelligent with great scene setting. **** and ***** and****

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin. A soap opera come crime story, an epic masterpiece. Franz Biberkopf is released from gaol, determined to go straight, he is lured back into the underworld of pimps, drunks, prostitutes and hoods. Events threaten to consume Franz. A contemporaneous novel of Berlin written in the 1920s. A stunning portrait of the city and its people. ****

Blue Night by Simone Buchholz. One of the best crime debuts I’ve ever read. Taut, sharp edged, contemporary. A cast of characters, and a picture of the city Hamburg, that is every bit as fascinating and real as the story. *****

Waltenburg by Hedi Kaddour. A great sprawling novel of decaying empire and modern twentieth century political affairs, a literary masterpiece and a spy story. Michael Lilstein is an East German master spy, a survivor of Auschwitz, the CIA want to know what he is up to with the young French recruit. Breath-taking scope, very literary read. *****

Death in Rome by Wolfgang Koeppen. Unreconstructed Nazis and liberal member of the same family (a democratic politician, a priest) all come together in a fight for the soul of post-war Germany. As gripping as a thriller. ****

The Russian Passenger by Gunter Ohnemus. A taxi driver, his Russian passengers, an ex-KGB agent and the wife of a mafia boss, plus a ridiculous amount of money go on the run. Slightly surreal, but dark and gripping. ****

Until the Debt is Paid by Alexander Hartung. Berlin detective Jan Tommen wakes up to find out he’s the number one suspect in the murder of a judge, there’s strong evidence and because of a bender Jan can’t remember anything. He escapes custody connecting the crime of a trafficking ring but can be bring in the killer before he’s captured again? ***1/2

Zen and the Art of Murder and A Summer of Murder by Oliver Bottini. Louise Boni is a Black Forest cop but she’s struggling with her divorce. Her boss insists she take on the strange case of the Buddhist monk. It leads to murder and the uncovering of child trafficking. Both the detective at the heart of the cases and the plots are off beat, witty, and original. A third novel will follow next year. **** and ****

Ice Cold by Andrea Maria Schenkel. Munich, 1930s, Kathie just wants to get out of her little village and make a life in the city but she looks a lot like women being brutalised and murdered, their corpses are being dumped around the city. The police have a culprit, but is Josef Kalteis really the killer? Schenkel tales real events and creates fictional voices to illuminating the stories, in this case a desperate story of a young woman away from home and the rise of Nazism. Goes to the psychology of the times. ****

Surely there has to be something there that you like?

Paul Burke
November 2018