Ruined city, shattered lives

There may be a new contender in the European crime noir market, currently dominated by Scandinavian Noir. Back in 2014 I reviewed The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach, a taut tale of modern murder and a Nazi past; I recently discovered another German writer, who this time sets his crime novels exclusively in the past - Cay Rademacher. The first in Rademacher's Hamburg trilogy (second and third are due to be published this year and next) The murderer in ruins is a stunningly told cold tale of post-war Germany and a serial killer on the loose.

Based on real life events - a series of unsolved murders in Hamburg in the bitter winter of 1946, Chief Inspector Frank Stave is on the trail of a murderer, who has left two women, a child and an elderly man naked and dead in the ruins of the city of Hamburg. Stave is forced to work with the British occupation authorities and a vice-cop to try to identify the victims and capture the killer.

It's a beautifully written novel with a real sense of place. The nearest to it would undoubtedly be the Vienna of Graham Greene's Third Man. In the Hamburg of Rademacher's Murderer in ruins black marketeers jostle refugees and orphans, it's an odd land where it is normal to be missing, and where people can vanish without anyone noticing. It's also a country trying to resurrect itself from its Nazi past, but where Nazis still lurk, sometimes within plain view. Stave himself is a genuinely good person, struggling to find his son, a new life, and to come to terms with the dark recent history of Germany. 

It's not a novel without faults. The riddle of the victims' identity is I think not entirely unconvincing, I personally found it difficult to believe that that particular set of people would have ended up in Hamburg, but at the same time, it ramped up the tension superbly; and it also provided an unexpected, and ironical, slice of history. I loved the unusual insight too into post-war Germany seen from a German perspective, pre-economic miracle.

If you enjoyed David Downing's Station series of novels, I'm sure you would enjoy these. Although I think that Rademacher's realisation of post-war Hamburg is much more highly realised than Downing's post-war Berlin. The translation by Peter Millar is superb, and it's a gripping start to what promises to be a fascinating series. Perhaps the next wave of European Noir is going to come from Germany?



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