Written by David Young — David Young is a member of the first cohort of writers who’ve graduated from London’s City University’s MA in Crime Writing and is beginning to make a name for himself. Stasi Child is his debut novel. It was shortlisted for the Yeovil Literary Prize and won the MA course prize before it was even published. Since publication last month the book has been successful with readers, and foreign language rights and TV rights have been successfully negotiated.
William Ryan, Martin Cruz Smith and Tom Rob Smith have all written books set Soviet Russia. This novel gives you an oppressive regime and a stark background too, but one that’s a little less familiar. The author deliberately chose a place and time – East Berlin in 1975 – less widely used in fiction.
Oberleutnant Karin Müller is everywoman – as her very common German name indicates. She gets roped into a strange investigation into the death of a young girl in the no-man’s land around the Berlin Wall. It appears the youngster was trying to escape from the West to the East, which is something almost unheard of. So why are the GDR’s secret police – the Stasi – getting involved? Is it some kind of cover-up?
Karin feels increasingly uncomfortable about Jäger – her Stasi superior – and his interference in the investigation, nor is she sure she can trust her partner Tilsner, despite the strong physical attraction she feels for him. Finally, she feels guilty about her husband. Gottfried is a teacher with Western sympathies and a good man, but she feels more and more estranged from him.
It soon becomes clear that several Stasi factions are involved, and there is a second, equally gripping storyline involving a youth camp which at first seems unrelated to the plot. As the two stories start to merge, you’ll begin to share Karin’s paranoia and her inability to trust anyone around her. Totalitarian regimes excel not only at silencing those who speak inconvenient truths, but also at planting the seeds of doubt, and letting the imagination and fears of the population do the work for them.
Young has done his research into the darkest, most dubious areas of East German history and spins an enthralling, claustrophobic tale. He skilfully blends imagination and historical fact, covering topics which are relatively unknown and shocking to Western readers, such as political prisoners making IKEA furniture in East Germany, repatriation agreements for under-16s between the West and the East, the Stasi turning family members against each other, and the youth work camps called Jugendwerkhof for ‘difficult’ children. Yet all this research sits lightly, never once slowing down a plot that explores so well the tug of loyalties between personal and professional values, in a country where the personal becomes, of necessity, political.
There may be one too many coincidences in the plot, and some of the things that Karin and her team get up to in the course of their investigations may stretch your belief, but overall this is an atmospheric, cracking police procedural with a political twist. In case you fear that the author may have used up all his storylines in this one novel, rest assured that there is more to come. A second book in the series featuring Karin Müller is in the pipeline.
A highly recommended debut with so much historical accuracy, that it brought back painful memories to those of us who lived through that period.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars