It is February 1941 and a serial killer preys upon young women in the quiet carriages of Berlin’s S-Bahn trains. The city is horrified and expects the murderer to be caught swiftly. Commissioner Lüdtke is in charge of the case, which drives him into the ground, falling asleep with exhaustion at his desk, but his methods are textbook. He becomes teacher to Georg Heuser, a new, young and idealistic police detective, who, in his very first week, is faced with a case that is in danger of defeating even Lüdtke. But Heuser has a natural talent for detective work – he rejuvenates the hunt, inspires his team, becomes obsessed with the drive to rid Berlin of this evil. It is no less than a personal crusade, a battle of intelligence and wills between himself and the S-Bahn murderer. But this is no ordinary case – how can it be? Controller of the police force is Reinhard Heydrich and this is the very heart of the Third Reich.
In 1959 lawyers Max Kraus and Paula Siebert have their own case to pursue – the prosecution of Nazi war criminals who committed atrocities on the Eastern Front, in Ostland. At last they have their target. They make a sensational arrest, a police chief known as the Beagle by his staff for his unfailing ability to track down the criminal. To Krause and Siebert he is a monster and his name is George Heuser.
When Ostland begins, the reader is soon nestled within the familiar world of the police procedural crime novel. We follow the clues along with Heuser, watch him learn his trade from Lüdtke, becoming a crucial member of this tired and dedicated team of detectives, falling in love with the female member of the team, on the hunt for a killer who preys on women, disturbing the calm of a vibrant and arrogant city. But it’s not long before everything is thrown up into the air and the pieces scatter. Interspersed throughout the chapters set in 1941 are others set almost twenty years into the future. In these, Kraus and Siebert have to discover what it was that turned a good man into a man as evil as any produced by the Reich. What happened to Heuser?
The development (if that’s the right word) of the monster within Heuser is mirrored by the novel’s movement from west to east. Once Heuser attracts the attention of Reinhard Heydrich, the controller of Reich security (including its police forces), and is moved to Minsk the days are numbered for Heuser’s morality but it is much more complicated than that. Everyone, including Lüdtke, has to ‘manage’ the rise of Nazism in one form or another, but Heuser’s degeneration is on another level entirely and his case throws open the diabolical truth of Nazism that many could have turned a blind eye against in the prosperous streets of Berlin during the early days of war.
The ironies are overflowing – that Heydrich could have been so appalled by murder in Berlin; that Heuser could have wanted to protect Berlin’s women but held life so cheap in the East. Heuser tells his story in the first person and this makes it all the more horrifying, as the warmth grows cold. It’s not often that I’ve read a novel where the reader’s relationship with the narrator becomes increasingly antagonistic as he becomes more and more unreliable. Heuser is perfectly able to describe the police procedural of the early chapters but once he is in the East, the reader has to make use of his or her peripheral vision, watching around the edges of the narrative for the appalling truth. It’s an extraordinary self-portrait of a man’s disintegration.
The story of Max Kraus and Paula Siebert is inevitably overshadowed by Georg Heuser – his voice is just too compelling. But it is complete in its own right, with Paula in particular experiencing her own transformation, in her career and in her personal life. This is a time in which female lawyers were few and far between and to make matters more tense they are working in a Germany trying to come to terms with its past and to make amends.
Ostland is an extremely powerful novel. It races along as all crime fiction should but it is as harrowing as it is thrilling. We meet numerous people along the way, all of whom leave their mark. Its structure is clever and effective and it is a book that refuses to leave you for quite some time. Outstanding and near impossible to put down.