East Berlin, 1975, a murdered child, a staged crime scene.
You know how sometimes you’re not completely sure about something, but you take a punt and you LOVE IT? That’s my relationship with this book.
What’s it about?
When Oberleutnant Karin Muller is summoned to investigate a young girl’s body, found at the foot of the Berlin Wall, she’s shocked that the available evidence suggests the girl was trying to escape from the West to the East. It quickly becomes clear that the ‘evidence’ is staged, and that Muller’s power as a member of the People’s Police is restricted by the omnipresent grip of the Stasi – the Ministry for State Security. Muller is instructed to ascertain the identity of the victim while making no attempt to identify or apprehend the culprit/s. Can she bear to limit her role in this way? What will happen to her if she doesn’t?
Meanwhile, Karin’s marriage is disintegrating and her relationship with her Underleutnant, Wener Tilsner, is shifting, but this is the least of husband Gottfried’s concerns: in the DDR, a Kriminalpolizei is not permitted to fraternise with enemies of the state, let alone remain married to one…
What’s it like?
Gripping. The personal and criminal elements are both immediately engaging and well paced. The threads ultimately coalesce to form an astonishingly powerful depiction of life in a totalitarian state and the ending is stunning.
Karin is a vulnerable yet difficult character from the opening paragraphs. It quickly becomes apparent that she supports the Communist regime and she could show far more concern for her husband. Her naivety is disturbing at times and a reader may be several steps ahead of her at any given point, especially since we are privvy to Irma Behrendt’s first-person narration revealing the cruel and abusive treatment of young people in a state run youth workhouse.
Irma’s fury at the brutality and duplicity of the world she encounters is a shocking counterpoint to Karin’s more subdued acceptance of their world. Irma’s resistance is genuine and fierce; Karin’s is sporadic and easily manipulated by the men around her, but it’s Irma’s end that will truly horrify readers.
This is a book I know I’ll be thinking about for weeks to come as I continue to absorb the aftershocks of the horrors depicted. It’s clearly intended to be the first in a series featuring Karin Muller, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for the next book, though what more Young can do to poor Karin I’m not sure!
It’s also made me want to learn more about this period in history, which, obsessed as the English education system seems to be with WW2 and Nazi Germany, didn’t really focus much on the DDR (as far as I remember).
Page-turning, immersive, absorbing and shocking. Highly recommended.