I must confess to having thrown in the odd Weimar comparison in the last week, and Godwin’s Law be damned: when members of parliament are assassinated by right-wing radicals on the street, let alone when society shows every sign of polarisation while moderate politics empties itself out and the extremes start to meet round the other side, it’s difficult to avoid such a feeling. But the aim of this post is not to develop the point, but to advertise as loudly as I can the fact that – as someone helpfully pointed out on Twitter – Volker Kutscher’s first Weimar Berlin Krimi, Der nasse Fisch, is now available in English translation as Berlin Babylon (http://sandstonepress.com/books/babylon-berlin). Go buy it in enormous numbers!
I think I’ve complained on here before about the scandalous neglect of the rich tradition of German detective novels, whereas every Scandinavian with a typewriter and a dose of Kierkegaardian angst gets a five-novel deal and a TV series. Kutscher is neither the best nor my favourite – that’s Ulrich Ritzel, and some day I will find time to complete my translation of his brilliant The Black Edges of the Embers, about the legacy of the Rote Armee Fraktion and far-right terrorism, which is so much better than the perfectly decent later novels that are the only ones ever available in English – but he’s still pretty damned good. Lots of historical detail about police work in the late 1920s, lots of historically appropriate crimes, shedloads of atmosphere (cabarets, gangsters, street urchins, jazz, cocaine, silent cinema) that hovers just on the right side of cliche, all seasoned with just the right amount of reference to major historical events in the background.
The central character, Gereon Rath, is an almost total Arschloch, albeit with the obligatory complex family background rooted in the First World War and an earlier blotting of copybook in Köln which arguably explains a bit of this; he lies, cheats on his on-off girlfriend Charlie, snorts cocaine, gets into hock with gangsters, falsifies evidence and regularly bunks off duty because of hangovers. Almost every other character, apart from an assortment of aristocratic Nazi sympathisers, is more sympathetic – including people, like some of Rath’s superiors, whom he sees as stupid and unpleasant but we see as basically decent and honest.
But this is part of the drama of the series – or at least this is what I tell myself to keep reading at certain moments. His creator clearly also thinks he’s an Arschloch, but with a core of decency and commitment to justice (not necessarily always the law). The point is that we know what is really happening in the background and where it’s leading, and so we know that either Rath will be finally corrupted – never a committed Nazi, but one of those who were too compromised and weak and/or too ambitious and self-centred not to go along with things – or this will end tragically sooner or later. Kutscher is never sadistic towards his characters (unlike certain Scandinavians) – but he’s never sparing of their faults or inclined to offer a sentimental view of the world.
One of the major themes of German culture over the last sixty-odd years has been the question of complicity and responsibility, and of course this is reflected in detective fiction. RItzel’s main characters are in the Chandler mode: dogged and decent, seeking to pin responsibility where it belongs, frustrated by the system that would prefer to shove certain crimes and memories under the carpet. The drama lies above all in the plot, the slow revelation of shameful secrets and the links between past and present – almost always, a recent crime turns out to have deep roots. Kutscher’s crimes are centred in the present of 1930s Berlin, and are often almost trivial, a trigger for Rath’s flaws to undermine him yet again rather than the centre of the story; we have a sense that events, rather than the political system, are closing in on him – and that the ultimate questions of guilt and responsibility will focus on him, not on the criminals.
To put it another way: Kutscher’s books get steadily better as the looming nightmare comes closer, and not just because his style matures – which is why you need to buy Berlin Babylon, to make sure that the rest get translated (and maybe even pave the way for Ritzel…). My fear is that they will feel too close to home at the moment; far from prompting a warm feeling of smug superiority that we Britons would never have succumbed to such extremism and popularism, the splintering of society and impotence of the state in the face of popular anger may feel alarmingly familiar. Detective fiction that is the precise opposite of comforting escapism…