August 07, 2014

German mysteries

The Dark Meadow is by a writer new to me, Andrea Maria Schenkel. She comes trailing plaudits as the first writer to win Germany's Crime Prize two years running and with her books translated into over twenty languages.

Schenkel seems to have developed a much-admired style that is minimalist and bleak, unfolding her stories in short chapters, each from the perspective of a different character, including the victim. The Dark Meadow, in a nicely-produced edition from Quercus, tells the grim story of a young single mother who returns to her family home having failed to find a life for herself beyond the village limits. It's 1947 and life is hard for a young woman with a child and living with parents who struggle to feed themselves, never mind another two mouths. The tale revolves around what happens to her, her parents and the various subsidiary characters who are witness to, or involved in, the murder itself.

Immediately after finishing the book, it's hard to know what to make of it. Its style is intriguing and makes for a very rapid read - the chapters are often between 2-4 pages long and feed you just enough information to want to know more, rather like The Da Vinci Code. The prose, in a deft translation by Anthea Bell, is spare and unshowy:
They'd kept him for eight weeks that other time, and in the end they'd let him go. He hadn't abjured, he had held fast to his faith. Ever since that day when he made his vow he had stood firmly by it. He could remember that, he wasn't forgetful, and didn't that prove it? It was all there, every detail, clear and distinct as if it had been only yesterday.
The only word here that stands out as uncommon is 'abjured', used to show Johann's closeness to his religious faith. It's a precise word and a clear word and does a lot of work in the context of the ordinary language that surrounds it.

What one is left with afterwards is a lingering sense of grim determinism - there is no detective in this crime novel, no one who unearths the shattering truth lying beneath the surface. Typically in a crime novel, the discovery of the murderer sets the world back on its path, makes sense of the insensible and helps us to understand both that the world we know can be turned over, and that through the use of  logic and reason it can eventually be set straight. In The Dark Meadow, the victim's fate seems almost pre-determined and not a surprise; the fact that the case takes eighteen years to solve, and is done in a quiet, administrative manner, creates an unmelodramatic and uncathartic climax to the story.

It's no surprise to me that an earlier one of Schenkel's books won the Martin Beck Award for the best international crime novel - the Beck series books are as low-key and pragmatic as this one, though they focus more on the practicalities of criminal detection. Schenkel instead focuses on the feelings and thoughts of those caught up in the crime and its subsequent investigation. No one knows what's going to happen - there's only a minimal anticipatory frisson of fear; and no one has a big-picture view of what did happen, giving the crime a context and a meaning. Schenkel's point seems to be that there is no meaning, and the identity of the murderer, when discovered, seems to reinforce this suggestion that a crime like this is indeed as meaningless to the murderer as it is to society at large.

As an introduction to a new style of crime writing I would definitely recommend this book. Don't expect fireworks and comedy, but do expect to be drawn in by the characters' lives and by the careful unfolding of the crime and its investigation which happen - cleverly - in parallel with each other, so that the narration of the murder happens near the end of the book, not far in the reading from its solution. It's a technique that I don't expect many crime writers to mimic, but there's no doubt that Schenkel has both created and mastered it, and it's likely to have an emergent impact on how crime writing develops over the next few years.

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