STASI CHILD by David Young

Tall grey and brown buildings with a lower building in front
Tall grey and brown buildings with a lower building in front

(STASI Headquarters, East Berlin)

To maintain power for over 40 years while their people starved and plotted to escape, the East German Communist Party had to get very good at controlling people and undermining anti-state activists. But outright street violence and assassinations weren’t good for the Party image, so the Ministry for State Security got creative. Better known as the Stasi (the German acronym), these secret police were the “Schild und Schwert der Partei” (Shield and Sword of the Party). Their sole function was to keep the Communist Party in power. They did not care how.  At a certain point they had 91,000 employees, 5,600,000 East German citizens were under suspicion for anti-party activity (about 1 and 3 people), all out of a total population of 17,000,000.  The  level of surveillance and infiltration caused East Germans to live in terror—you really never knew if you could trust anyone—though most had no idea of the scope of these activities until after the Berlin Wall fell.  With this in the background author, David Young, an English novelist created a crime thriller series featuring a fictional Volkspolezi detective, Karin Müller, set in 1970s East Germany. Young’s debut novel STASI CHILD won the “CWA Endeavor Historical Dagger” award for the best historical crime novel of the year.  The novel is the first of six iterations of his Karin Muller series which immediately captivates the reader who will find it difficult to put down.

The novel begins with Oberleutnant Karin Muller and her deputy, Unterleutnant Werner Tilsner, find themselves in bed with each other after a night of drinking.  Both are married, Muller is aghast and Tilsner has an arrogant smirk on his face.  This is just background as they are immediately summoned to a murder scene at the Berlin Wall.  When they arrive they are met by STASI Oberstleutnant Klaus Jager who informs them he is in charge, even though it comes under the jurisdiction of the Kriminalpolizei or KRIPO.  This arrangement will prove interesting throughout the novel.  The crime scene is made up of a murdered young girl whose face could have been destroyed by wild animals and Jager informs Muller she is in charge of the investigation to determine the identity of the body, the cause of death, and the killer.  The problem that arises is that Jager has informed her that his preliminary investigation concludes that the girl was shot fleeing the western side of the Berlin Wall trying to enter East Germany.  Her task is to provide evidence to support Jager’s conclusions.

The situation is further exacerbated after Jonas Schmidt, the KRIPO scientist, and Professor Feuerstein, the KRIPO pathologist examine the murder scene and conduct an autopsy and their findings do not support Jager’s scenario.  Muller is immediately caught up in a situation where she is losing control.  When She and Tilsner were trying to identify the victim, they came across a teenage girl named Silke Eisenberg who had run away successfully to West Berlin.

Young is a superb practitioner of the Cold War thriller.  He does an excellent job creating the ambiance and jargon of the time period as the East German government (DDR) is having difficulty keeping its citizens from trying to escape to West Berlin, despite the building of the Wall in 1961.  Young has created a multi-faceted plot that leaves the reader wondering how it all fits together.  There is the murder investigation that Karin Muller is hoping to solve.  There is the role of STASI and the concept that no one wants the perpetrators to be found.  We must also deal with Karin’s husband Gottfried who is arrested by the STASI. Lastly, the role of the reform school at Profo-Ost and the plight of Irma Behrendt and her friend Beate Ewert who tries to commit suicide.

Young creates a number of interesting characters.  Jonas Schmidt, the fumbling forensic scientist and Krimminaltechniker.  Klaus Jager, a man with an agenda that is difficult to figure out.  Karin’s husband, Gottfried, a teacher, an idealist, whose situation deteriorates from the outset of the novel as he watches western news programs and frequents a church where the pastor is under surveillance.  Matthias Gellman, a confused star crossed teenager who make a number of poor decisions.  Lastly, Franz Neumann, a sinister character who runs Profo-Ost.  There are the usual bleak characters that run the reform school and a host of others.

Karin faces dilemmas throughout the novel.  She admires her country’s efforts to raise up the position of women in society as she is the highest ranking woman in the People’s Police.  But, on the other hand the male dominated leadership in the police community creates doubts in her belief in the system.  Further, her view of East German society is questioned as she and her partner travel to the west where for the first time she sees the luxuries and everyday thriving of a capitalist culture.  Deep down she is shocked by the number of missing girls in East Berlin, a number that dwarfs those missing in the west which is in large part why she is determined to find the murderer of the girl by the Berlin Wall.  Karin also feels guilty over her marriage and she wonders if there is anything she can do to help her husband.

Fans of the late Philip Kerr and his Bernie Guenther character and Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko should enjoy Young’s foray into the cold war thriller.  The dialogue is crisp and the juxtaposition of east and west is well conceived.  All in all a success, and I look forward to the next book in the series, STASI WOLF.

A door with a sign reading
A door with a sign reading

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