A week in Berlin: Krimis, Krimis and yet more Krimis

I was lucky enough to spend the whole of last week on a research trip in snowy Berlin, and was sure to squeeze every last drop from the marvellous opportunities this world city has to offer.

Section of the former Berlin Wall

The main reason for my trip was to see the 5500 crime novels or Krimis (Krimi = ‘Kriminalroman’) in the Kuczynsky Collection at the Berlin Central Library for my  research into East German crime fiction.

Jürgen Kuczynsky (1904-1997), a prominent GDR academic and political adviser to Honecker, was a keen crime fan, and according to the archivists had a regular cigar-for-crime-novel exchange agreement with the famous dramatist Bertolt Brecht. I was very kindly given access to this as yet uncatalogued collection, and in the course of my visit unearthed a number of extremely interesting texts, such as Gerhard Scherfling’s fascinating East German crime novel Die Zeitungsnotiz (The Newpaper Item, 1973), in which a historian is revealed as the murderer and as a former Nazi (one for my database…). I was able to peruse these on a tatty yet comfortable sofa, which was bequeathed to the library along with Kuczynski’s books, and sits in the corner of the vast storage room where the collection is currently housed. I imagine that Jürgen and Bert had some lovely chats about crime fiction while parked there.

I was also fortunate enough to be able to visit all of Berlin’s crime bookshops. Berlin is an absolute mecca for Krimi fans, as it has not one, not two, but three wonderful bookshops packed to the rafters with crime. Finding them took me all over the city, from Prenzlauer Berg in the north-east, where the Krimibuchhandlung todsicher (‘dead certain’) is located, to Charlottenburg and the Miss Marple bookshop in the west, and finally to Schöneberg and the Hammett bookshop in the south-east, near the old Tempelhof airport.

The very helpful lady in todsicher presented me with an absolute treasure trove: a whole box of GDR crime fiction from the DIE series (a witty acronym that stands for Delikte Indizien Ermittlungen / crimes, clues, investigations).

While the other two didn’t carry GDR crime (according to the owner of Hammett, the continued existence of a ‘literary wall’ means there’s little demand for works from East German publishing houses), they did have stacks of contemporary crime fiction set in Berlin, which I was also keen to see. Notably, there appears to be a mini-explosion of twentieth-century historical series by German authors at the moment, which are being strongly promoted in mainstream bookshops as well as more specialist outlets. The following caught my eye:

Volker Kutscher’s ‘Gereon Rath’ series (2007-): three novels set in 1930s Berlin (Der nasse Fisch, Der stumme Tod, Goldstein; English descriptions and sample translations available here).

Uwe Klausner’s ‘Tom Sydow’ series (2009-): four novels set in Berlin between 1942 and 1961 (Walhalla-Code, Odessa-Komplott, Bernstein-Connection, Kennedy-Syndrom).

The ‘es geschah in Berlin Kettenroman’ (the ‘it happened in Berlin chain-novel’; 2007-): currently fourteen novels set in Berlin between 1910 and 1936, featuring investigator Hermann Kappes. This series was conceived by the famous German crime writer Horst Bosetzky, but – very intriguingly – is written by a number of different authors. It’s apparently achieved cult status in Germany.

I also picked up a standalone crime novel by Mechtild Borrmann entitled Wer das Schweigen bricht (The One who Breaks the Silence, Pendragon 2011), which won the Deutscher Krimi Preis in 2012. It’s a crime novel that engages with the legacy of the National Socialism through the story of a son researching his industrialist father’s wartime past.

None of these have been translated into English as yet, although the rights to Kutscher’s novels have been snapped up in a number of other countries, including Japan.

And as if all of that wasn’t enough…I got to hang out in Berlin the same week as the Berlinale film festival and the resignation of the German President due to a corruption scandal. No visit to Berlin is ever dull. I first visited in 1988, a year before the Wall came down, and every time I go back, I continue to be amazed at the dramatic changes taking place there – best appreciated visually from the top of the space-age Fernsehturm by the Alexanderplatz.

Fernsehturm as seen from the Alex

Most striking this time round was the disappearance of the Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic), the East German 1970s parliamentary building on Unter den Linden, which was demolished in 2008 due to its high asbestos content. The city now has ambitious plans to rebuild the Berliner Stadtschloss (Berlin City Palace), which originally stood on the site between the 1750s and 1950 … the year in which the war-damaged building was torn down by the GDR regime! Berlin is full of these sorts of mind-blowing twists and turns, with buildings, streets and even whole districts being dramatically reshaped by historical events and the rise and fall of different regimes. On discovering that one street had undergone six name changes between 1907 and 1990, I had to retreat for a calming Bier.*

All in all, it was a highly profitable and enjoyable week, and I’m already looking forward to returning to Berlin soon. Lots of reading to keep me going until then though – my return luggage contained a ridiculous number of new Krimis, which I only just managed to lug home.

*Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz: was Babelsberger Platz (1907-10), Bülowplatz (1910-33), Horst-Wessel-Platz (1933-45), Liebknechtplatz (1945-47) and Luxemburgplatz (1947-69) before taking its current name in 1969.

17 thoughts on “A week in Berlin: Krimis, Krimis and yet more Krimis

  1. Sounds like a brilliant week. Can you read these books in German (I presume very few if any have been translated). I’m ashamed of my lack of language skills…..

    • Yes, I speak German, for which I can thank a family connection and having studied German and English at university; it’s part of what I do professionally as an academic now as well.

      Aside from helping me to access German crime fiction that hasn’t been translated, knowing German is also handy for getting at other international crime novels that have been translated into German but not English. Germans absolutely LOVE crime fiction – it’s one of the major crime markets globally from what I understand, so there’s a good chance of finding something there if you can’t get hold of it in English. Interestingly, while I was looking around the Kuczynski collection, I noticed a number of Russian crime novels in German translation. This makes perfect sense given the Cold War ties between the GDR and the Soviet Union, and provides one answer to the question of how to access Russian-language crime from the post-war era, which I’ve always wanted to do.

      German crime fiction in translation? There’s a low rate of traffic into English as opposed to UK and American texts being translated into German (as one might expect). But there is definitely a thriving crime-writing industry in Germany, and some good ones are getting through. A few that spring to mind are Bernhard Schlink’s ‘Selb’ trilogy (translated off the back of The Reader’s success), Pierre Frei’s Berlin, Christian von Ditfurth’s ‘Stachelmann’ series, Andrea Maria Schenkel’s The Murder Farm, and of course Jan Costin Wagner’s ‘Joentaa’ series (though set in Finland!). With the possible exception of the latter, however, there’s no German-crafted detective figure that’s regarded with the same kind of affection by English-language readers as (say) Mankell’s Wallander.

      I’ve also heard publishers like Christopher MacLehose say that German writers haven’t really ‘got’ how to write the pacey narratives that crime readers so often want. I don’t quite agree with this assessment, but it’s true that we’re still waiting for a German crime writer that has the same impact as a Mankell or Larsson on the international stage. (Although if one regards Patrick Susskind’s Perfume as a crime novel, then there’s one exception already to that rule).

      Can’t resist saying this, Maxine … I truly believe that it’s never to late to learn a language and to benefit from the access it can give you to another culture :). Spanish is the next big one on my list (and I wouldn’t mind learning a bit of Japanese too).

      • Thanks, Mrs P. Agree that the germans are v keen on their crime fiction. For example I’ve just read a good debut novel by Anya Lipska which she had to self-publish in the UK but which is being published in Germany (forget name of publisher but the German end of Random house) later this year. The novel is cheap on Amazon by the way if you want to try it, it is about the Polish community in London (and is part set in Poland).

        I should definitely try to learn a language (again). I did a couple for O level but that was it. Terrible.

      • Thanks for the tip – will check Anya Lipska out. The name rings a bell…
        Good luck with the language learning 🙂

  2. Hi Mrs P.,

    I was really interested to read your post about the Kuczynsky Collection. I’m a historian writing about the policing of cold war Berlin and I’m interested in depictions of police work there in criminal/espionage fiction from the 1950s. It would be great to get in touch with you and to read anything you’ve published on this topic.

    • Hello Mark, and thanks – it would be very interesting to hear what you’re working on in a bit more detail and to see if there’s any material I have that would be of help to you. I haven’t published specifically on the 1950s (the Cold War angle is fairly new to me and my main focus at the moment is the depiction of National Socialism and its legacy in transnational crime fiction) – but I have done a bit on policing, and it would certainly be good to have a chat. Is it OK for me to get in touch with you via email? Perhaps next week? Best, Mrs. P.

  3. Thanks, Mrs P. It would be really good to chat. I’m away on a research trip to Paris from tomorrow but will be back by the 15th. Email’s best because wordpress doesn’t seem to like me commenting.

  4. Pingback: Deutschi Crime Night and the ‘Crime Fiction in German’ volume | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

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