Zaffre | 2018 (8 February) | 360p | Review copy | Buy the book
East German police detective Karin Müller is given an offer that is very hard to refuse. In return for running a serious crime unit, liaising with the Stasi when appropriate, she will be promoted to Major of the East German People’s Police, a jump of two ranks, and given a luxurious apartment for herself, her mother, boyfriend and their baby twins. It comes with a price. Her maternity leave will be cut short and her mother will spend more time with her babies than she will. The reality of this hits almost immediately when Müller and her partner Tilsner, likewise promoted, are sent close to the Polish border where the body of a teenage boy has been found weighted down in a lake.
This isn’t the only crime to test Müller. Markus, the son of one of her team members, is also missing and it’s clear that the Stasi are keeping a close watch on the case. Müller soon realises that she is caught up in a conspiracy and it will take all of her skill to disentangle herself. The future of her own family is at stake.
A Darker State is the third novel in David Young’s Karin Müller series, a series that I have loved from its beginning. It is set during a most fascinating time and place in modern European history – East Germany in the 1970s, during the Cold War. The West looms beyond the Wall (or the Anti-Fascist Barrier as it was known on the eastern side), a temptation to some, the epitome of immoral decadence to others. David Young’s research into the time and place is clearly considerable and his insight and knowledge can be seen on every page. But because he’s the very fine writer that he is, he carries his learning lightly. It doesn’t interfere with the narrative or the pace of the plot, but it most certainly enriches both.
One of the things I really love about these books is that Karin Müller is depicted as being comfortable in her skin. She has considerable issues with the Stasi, who have actually endangered her at times (we feel that perhaps she is ignorant of the true extent of their influence and power), and she deplores some other aspects of her life in the East, but she is an East German to her heart. She believes in its Communist ideals, she deplores the lack of social care and responsibility for the old and poor in the West. There is no right and wrong here, no black or white. Except for one thing – the Stasi. And even they, or at least individuals, are more complex than might first appear.
A Darker State has such a strong plot. The novels in this series always do. And it’s so interesting watching their investigation with 1970s’ police techniques, quite apart from the interference of the Stasi. As usual, it is also an emotional case. Vulnerable young people are its victims. Müller is such a developed individual – she feels the suffering. She’s tough, she has to be, but she cares. Her assistant Tilsner is an enigmatic character, embodying the novel’s sense that not everybody is to be trusted. As a result his relationship with Karin is particularly rich.
This is fascinating historical fiction, just as it’s also gripping crime fiction. Its sense of place and time are second to none. When I read one of David Young’s books, I feel completely immersed in it, even more so because of the quality of the characterisation and the empathy that the author feels for these people. The fact that A Darker State is also such a pageturner doesn’t hurt in the least! If you haven’t read this series before than A Darker State can definitely be read as a stand alone, but I certainly suggest that you give yourself a treat and also read Müller’s first case, Stasi Child and its excellent successor Stasi Wolf.