Fresh Blood

Name: David Young

Title of Book: Stasi Child

'...‘Stasi Child’ will do for East Germany what ‘Gorky Park’ did for Russia! '

The year is 1975 in East Berlin. A call in the night wakes up Oberleutnant Karin Muller. Unfortunately, she wakes up in the bed next to her colleague, Unterleutnant Werner Tilsner. Not a good start to the day. They are called to a cemetery near the Wall. They are not the first on the scene. The crime is already being looked over by the Stasi. This is highly irregular and Muller already has her suspicions aroused as to why they are involved in the death of a young girl. Was she a prostitute or another casualty trying to escape to the West?

At the scene there are factors that don’t add up. The girl’s body is facing the wrong way if she was trying to escape the harsh regime of the East and other points lead the detectives to believe the crime scene has been corrupted in the hope of misleading the officers. And why is Jäger adamant that Muller and Tilsner are only to identify the girl – and not in any way pursue her killer? Both officers soon find themselves being led down a maze of dead ends with subterfuge from every angle – even the Stasi who first put them on the case, but Karin’s persistence pays off. As her personal life crumbles, Karin’s path leads to a ‘closed’ youth workhouse and it is there that Karin starts to peel back the rotting skin of corruption at the highest echelons of East German society.

It is always wonderful to find a book that really grips you from the get-go. Young doesn’t necessarily paint too vivid a picture about life in the 70’s, but what he does is re-create that sense of totalitarianism that was prevalent during the years the Berlin Wall was erected. I have seen many documentaries about the East Germany regime and The Stasi in particular was instrumental in keeping the populace well under its thumb. In some form, it was as though disciples of Hitler had decided that if they couldn’t have the world, then they’d take East Germany instead. It is very clever of Young to place his novel during this time as there must be a wealth of material to keep his main protagonist, Karin Muller busy for some time.

Young transported me to this place and I was quickly shivering in a snowy cemetery along with Muller and Tilsner. Almost immediately the subterfuge is in play with The Stasi in command and soon Muller is re-directed time and again by Stasi officials as well as her own boss, Reiniger who is himself under pressure to not allow his own detectives to deviate from their designated mission. Young’s novel perfectly oozes the unease of these people who are no more than puppets who will pay severe consequences if they step out of line. Even a wrong word spoken out of context could lead to punishment. The sense of paranoia drips off every page.

The author flips the narrative from Muller to Irma who has been placed in the ‘closed’ youth workhouse packing up beds and kitchens that are then sent off to Sweden. Irma’s story is the hardest to read and comprehend as her attendance at this place is not of her own doing. As you can imagine, again here are people with power who use it to abuse and control those who are supposed to be in their care. It does make for uncomfortable reading, but gradually Karin’s and Irma’s story becomes inextricably entwined, leading to a last page conclusion that will shock you.

‘Stasi Child’ is hugely ambitious for a debut novel but it works. You can tell that Young has certainly done his homework and his background working in a newsroom helps him move his story along efficiently. I am looking forward to his second novel and hope that I will again be transported back to East Berlin. Sticking my neck out, I have a feeling that ‘Stasi Child’ will do for East Germany what ‘Gorky Park’ did for Russia! This will become a firm favourite in 2016.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) You were born in Hull and educated in York and Bristol and yet you have decided to set your debut not only in East Germany, but back in time to 1975. Why did you set yourself such a huge challenge for your first book?
I didn’t and don’t really think of it that way. The novels I enjoy most are those that transport me to a different time and place, a different world to get lost in. So I guess like most authors I tried to write something that I’d want to read. In recent years I’d read and enjoyed both Anna Funder’s non-fiction ‘Stasiland’ and Tom Rob Smith’s ‘Child 44’ so they were big influences. And in the late noughties a very obscure indiepop band I started as a safety valve from the drudgery of the day job managed to secure two self-booked tours of Germany. It was the experience of a lifetime, fantastic fun, and eye-opening in that most of the venues that booked us were in what was – before reunification – communist East Germany. I was amazed that a lot of East Berlin and the industrial areas near Leipzig and Halle still had such a stamp of the German Democratic Republic evident everywhere. You could almost smell it. So when – a few years later – we were doing exercises in our first year of the City University Crime Thriller MA, I chose to set one of mine in East Berlin. The tutor, Claire McGowan, really loved the idea, and persuaded me to expand that into a novel, rather than my original idea, which was an 18th century sex and crime romp (I might return to that at a later date – I’m sure it has potential!).
2) For those who are not too sure about the West/East Germany divide, could you give a short history and why the political landscape attracted you?
At the end of the Second World War, Germany was divided into zones of occupation by the victorious Soviet, American, British and French forces, and the Soviet zone roughly corresponded to where the Red Army had advanced to. The exception was the capital, Berlin, which was divided into its own zones even though it was totally surrounded by the Soviet-controlled area. The German Democratic Republic – commonly known as East Germany – came into being in 1949, led by German communists (many of whom had been persecuted by the Nazis), but still firmly under Moscow’s control. The GDR (DDR in German) was in effect, though not technically, a one-party state ruled by the Socialist Unity Party (SED in German) who kept dissenters in line thanks to their internal security service, controlled by the Ministry for State Security (‘Ministerium für Staatssicherheit’ in German – hence Stasi from the letters in bold). In 1961, faced by a brain drain of the youngest and brightest East Germans fleeing to West Berlin, the SED constructed a barrier around the western sector of the city, which became known as the Berlin Wall (or the Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier in the East).

I never got to visit East Germany before the Wall fell in 1989, although in my early years in journalism I was sent to cover a big 1984 NATO exercise – Operation Lionheart – for a local paper (similar war ‘games’ are currently featured on TV in ‘Deutschland 83’). So I’ve always had an interest in the communist East, and setting a novel there proved irresistible.
3) Did your time as an editor at the BBC World TV and radio newsrooms have any influence on basing your debut novel in Germany?
I think so. I was working in the World Service radio newsroom as the old communist block disintegrated in the late 80s and early 90s, and I always remember monitoring TV news pictures and being struck by look of bewilderment on the faces of communist leaders as their people rose up against them.
4) Your main protagonist is Oberleutnant Karin Müller. Did you feel it easy or difficult to get in to a female mindset?
I don’t think I particularly struggled with it, but readers may disagree! I had two female tutors on the City University course (Claire McGowan as previously mentioned, and Guardian crime critic and author Laura Wilson) who pulled me up occasionally when Müller’s thoughts were too ‘male’. One reviewer on Amazon or somewhere reckoned Müller’s sexuality was indeed too ‘male’ – but that was partly deliberate (I’ve met women a bit like that!). At least with Müller I’m writing in the third-person. Perhaps more of a challenge was the first-person character in the second, parallel narrative – that of 15-year-old Irma. But I was conscious that Cold War/spy/crime novels of this type might appeal mainly to males – I deliberately wanted to try to draw in a female readership. After all, most fiction readers are female.
5) As per the title, your story involves the Stasi (Ministry for State Security) which is recognised as one of the harshest and repressive intelligence services in the world. This was dissolved in 1990 at the end of the GDR (German Democratic Republic). What was it about this agency that made you make it such an instructive part of the book?
Well I think reading ‘Stasiland’ was a real eye-opener for me. I remember it being a bestseller more than a decade ago – it just seemed such a weird non-fiction book to hit the charts. I didn’t read it then, but later during the band’s German tour. It’s a fantastic but frightening book. I wanted to imbue some of that in my fictional world. But Müller doesn’t actually work (officially) for the Stasi, she’s a regular detective with the People’s Police. The Stasi do feature prominently, but I’ve tried to portray my main Stasi character, Jäger, at least partly sympathetically. When I came up with the title, I was just using Stasi as a shorthand for East Germany, but having chosen it, I changed the ending of the novel slightly. Claire never liked the title, but I stuck to my guns and she’s since (kindly) admitted I was right.
6) When I read ‘Stasi Child’ it felt as though you had done a lot of research, especially with regards to East Berlin and the way the populace was constantly monitored for any insurgency against the authorities. Are the records for 1975 now easily available with the reunification of Germany?
Stasi files are available but many are still being pieced back together after they were shredded en masse when the end for the GDR came. It’s a mammoth task. I did do a lot of research, but not directly into Stasi files or indeed other documents. The primary sources I used were interviews with former GDR detectives, and memoirs. But my main obstacle is that I don’t speak German beyond ordering a beer or hotel room. So my research methods on the memoirs involved buying the books, tearing the pages out, scanning the parts I wanted and then using optical character recognition programmes to turn them into Word documents. I then fed these through Google Translate. What comes out is partly gobbledygook – the narrative never flows – but the facts, which are what I want, are still clear enough.
7) The parts about the ‘closed youth workhouse’ are particularly harrowing. Did such places exist and how did you hear about them?
Yes Jugendwerkhöfe were very real and, by all accounts, vile places. Sexual and physical abuse was rife. But as recent revelations in the UK have shown, this isn’t a peculiarly East German phenomenon. The most severe was the ‘closed’ (as in like a prison, rather than shut down) youth workhouse at Torgau, not far from Leipzig. I don’t think they are that well known about in the UK. They were designed to re-educate problem children into ‘socialist personalities’ based on the methods of the Soviet educator, Anton Makarenko. If anything, my fictional institution on Rügen is less severe than Torgau – even though that was my model. I discovered them during the City course when I had Irma and friends escaping from a beach. A tutor suggested a children’s home might be more authentic, and when I delved into that I discovered this horrible can of worms that was the Jugendwerkhöfe system. It became a key part of the novel.
8) Are you a fan of crime fiction? If so, what are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you and you would wish to have on a deserted island?
Now I have to make a terrible confession. Not really, or at least I wasn’t. Not that I hated it, but I wouldn’t necessarily seek out crime over other novels, though in my teenage years I was a big fan of thrillers by Helen MacInnes and Alistair MacLean. The first two I’d pick for their lasting impression are probably Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (which I suppose isn’t even strictly crime fiction, but it’s one of my favourite novels of all time), and Ice Station Zebra by the aforementioned Alistair MacLean (I saw the film over Christmas so would love another crack at the book). The third is for the wrong reasons, so I probably wouldn’t take it to the island, but it certainly made an impression. It’s Grasshopper by Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell). I’ve thoroughly enjoyed a lot of Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine novels, but I thought this one was rather unbelievable and not one of her best. However, it did make me try my hand at writing to see if I could do better. I might not have succeeded, but at least it inspired me to write!