Zaffre | 2019 (18 April) | 377p | Review copy | Buy the book
East German police detective Major Karin Müller is enjoying a rare holiday beside the Black Sea with her grandmother and her little twins when she is urgently called back to East Berlin. A senior official in the secret police, the Stasi, has been murdered, killed by fire. Müller and her partner Tilsner search for the reasons for the murder in the dead man’s past but it’s soon clear that the Stasi will not allow her to ask the questions she must. She is removed from the case. And then another important and influential man is killed in a fire. When Müller digs into this one, she comes up against the Stasi once more. This is a pattern that can only lead to trouble.
It doesn’t help that Tilsner seems disinterested and distracted. He’s blaming it on personal problems but Karin’s not so sure. Despite their closeness, she’s had reason to suspect his loyalty before. She’s now convinced that he’s not to be trusted. More than ever before, Karin feels alone as she strives to discover the truth but what she reveals, at great personal risk to herself, is more shocking and terrible than she could have ever imagined. And somebody wants these secrets to stay dead, whatever the cost.
Stasi 77 is the fourth novel by David Young to feature the investigations of Karin Müller, a detective in the East German People’s Police during the 1970s. I’ve loved each one of these books but Stasi 77 is, I think, nigh on perfect. It is certainly my favourite of the four and is a novel that the author should be very proud of.
The book immerses the reader in this communist East German world, with its expectations and disappointments, its pride and confidence, its cars and bad coffee, its nights illicitly spent in front of the latest West German drama on the TV, the nosiness of spies absolutely everywhere, the interference of the State. David Young knows this world inside out. This is historical fiction (as well as crime fiction) of the highest order. It might be only forty years ago but this is a foreign place for sure and all of the little details build up the novel’s strong sense of authenticity. He has also created a thoroughly believable main character in Karin Müller. She genuinely believes in this Soviet-led socialist society even though she, more than almost anyone, is exposed to its failings. Karin holds on to the ideal, where every person has their place and is looked after, with everyone working for the benefit of others. She’s even prepared to put up with the Stasi. But that might be about to change. Karin’s relationship with the Stasi is fascinating as characters emerge from the shadows with ominous regularity, only then to fade away once more. But how can she put up with this, particularly when her own children become pawns in their game? It is absolutely fascinating.
But there’s another world that rears its monstrous head in Stasi 77 and that’s the country’s Nazi past. A wartime tale threads its way through the narrative. Atrocities are committed and suffered. They must not be forgotten. There are some harrowing scenes in Stasi 77 but they are very sensitively portrayed. They're all the more shocking because much of it is based on real events. The author will be writing about this in a guest post on For Winter Nights in a day or two. I urge you to read the novel to learn more.
I've become very fond of Karin Müller through these novels and in Stasi 77 she demands genuine respect and admiration for her dogged pursuit of the truth. The way that she has to combine career with motherhood is a key theme. Fortunately, she has an incredible, long-suffering grandmother to help out. We see how much of what Karin has is dependent on her job, including her apartment. She could lose everything at any time. Karin’s used to looking over her shoulder, searching for her Stasi shadow. They’re there more than ever in Stasi 77 and it’s time for us to learn much more about those in their pay. Müller will have to re-examine many of the relationships in her life.
Stasi 77 is undoubtedly the darkest of the four novels but it is, in my opinion, the best so far. I could not put it down. You might get more from it if you’ve read the previous novels – and I’d certainly suggest that you do – but this novel stands alone very well. It’s striking, powerful and embedded in its historical setting and place. It will be very interesting indeed to see where Karin Müller can go from here.