The Stasi Game by David Young: Atmospheric, prize-winning series steeped in the suspicion and paranoia of East Germany - book review -
An increasingly sceptical, and recently demoted, Hauptmann Karin Müller, whose tension-filled battles with the Stasi have led her to some unnerving corners of state control, and whose new case, the author hints, might just be her final flourish.
For nearly five years, crime thriller fans have shared the trials, tribulations, and infrequent triumphs, of Karin Müller, an officer with the German Democratic Republic’s People’s Police, during the dark days of the Cold War.
This atmospheric, prize-winning series is steeped in the suspicion and paranoia of East Germany and comes from the pen of Yorkshire-born author David Young, whose aim is to show what life was like ‘on the other side of the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart,’ the German Democratic Republic’s favourite term for the Berlin Wall.
And it is the physical and ideological division between East and West which has provided the springboard for a raft of stunning novels centred on the chilling powers of the Stasi, the notoriously ruthless official state security service which used informants to spy on its own population and which has been described as one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies ever created.
At the heart of these hard-hitting stories is the increasingly sceptical, and recently demoted, Hauptmann Karin Müller, whose tension-filled battles with the Stasi have led her to some unnerving corners of state control, and whose new case, the author hints, might just be her final flourish.
It’s a murder mystery that sets the intrepid Müller and her team on the trail of events in Dresden during the last year of the Second World War… and on a collision course with both the Stasi and MI6.
In 1982, People’s Police homicide captain Karin Müller from Berlin has been given a roving brief since her demotion for scandalous events three years ago. It has meant that she sees little of her five-year-old twins, Johannes and Jannika, who have been selected for sports scholarships at a state boarding school.
When Müller is called out to investigate a murder on a building site in Dresden, she discovers a man’s body buried in concrete in the new town district, a place still overshadowed by the wartime bombings and a skyline of ‘half-destroyed Baroque ruins.’
The man is inside the concrete, with only his arm sticking out ‘like a snapshot of a drowning man at sea,’ and all his identifiable features have been removed, including his fingertips.
But more disturbing for Müller is the fact that the Stasi are interested in the body of what the police are now calling ‘Concrete Man,’ and all the indications are that the secret police already know not just who he is, but how he came to be dead.
The deeper Müller digs, the more the Stasi begin to hamper her investigations. And when her enquiries lead her to an English historian called Arnold Southwick and a woman called Lotti Rolf who survived the Dresden fire-storm, Müller soon realises that this crime is just one part of a clandestine battle between two secret services – the Stasi and Britain’s MI6 – to control the truth behind the wartime bomb attacks on the city.
For those brought up after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the word ‘Stasi’ may not conjure up the same cold chill but in this cracking series, Young has brought to vivid life the organisation’s devastating effect on the country’s people who lived under a cloud of constant fear that is hard to imagine today.
And in what may or may not be Muller’s last outing, we see ‘a whiff of change’ in the air and the surveillance state moving slowly but inexorably towards the tumultuous days of November 1989 when the Berlin Wall, whose construction began in 1961, was finally toppled after a mass protest.
Müller, who is now barely clinging on to her job, is beset by personal and professional problems… as ever, the Stasi are deeply and dangerously controlling the inquiry and watching her every move like a hawk, and her twin son and daughter have been ensnared in a state-run sports school with dubious credentials.
Young plays out a brilliant cat-and-mouse game as we travel back in time to the pre-war days and a teenage crush that will have an unexpected legacy, through the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden, and into a 1980s political minefield which spells danger at every turn for Karin Müller.
In trademark style, Young fleshes out each of his characters with perfect precision and although the books are part of a series, each one can easily be read as a riveting standalone. Powerful, fast-paced and extensively researched, this is historical crime fiction at its best.
(Zaffre, paperback, £7.99)