Zaffre | 2020 (9 January) | 354p | Review copy | Buy the book
Stasi Winter is the fifth novel by David Young to feature Major Karin Müller of East Germany’s People’s Police. While it isn’t vital that you’ve read the others in order to enjoy this fantastic novel, I think it would be an even better reading experience if you had, especially as this novel revisits characters from the first book Stasi Child. This review assumes that you’ve read Stasi Child at least.
It is the winter of 1978/79 and East Germany, along with much of northern and eastern Europe, is in the grip of a winter that people will talk about for years to come. It is East Germany’s ‘catastrophe winter’. Not surprisingly, it is particularly bad in the north and it is to Rostock, a port on the northern coast that Müller, her deputy Werner Tilsner and forensic investigator Jonas Schmidt are sent when the body of a woman is found in the ice, frozen to death. As usual, the Stasi will be keeping a close eye on the investigation and, not for the first time, Müller finds herself caught between a rock and a hard place as the Stasi continues to try and exert control and manipulate Müller and Tilsner. Müller had wanted to give it all up, and thought she had, but she is given little choice. Then, when the identity of the dead woman is uncovered, Müller realises how close to home this case is and with it comes memories of the past. Müller must make a choice and she must risk everything.
This is a fantastic series and I’ve loved it since the beginning. The murder mysteries they depict are compelling and clever but there are two main reason why I’ll never get enough of these books. Firstly, there is the character of Karin Müller. She is a fully-rounded, believable, living and breathing woman with an absolute sense of duty and justice, who has to juggle a family life with a post that is unheard of for a woman. She is unusual and exists in a man’s world. The Stasi has cost her greatly, she has witnessed the effects of what they do, she has glimpsed the attractions of the West, but Karin still believes in a communist state and upholds its values. Her conviction is tested time and time again but through Karin we are reminded of what the ideal of communism is. Karin doesn’t hate the West, quite the opposite, she enjoys watching its television (which she can do due to her privileged position) and she is attracted to elements of it, but she also understands its failings and believes that her own state, should it ever function as it should, is the answer. If only it weren’t for the Stasi…
The other main reason why I love this series so much is its portrayal of East Germany during the 1970s. I’ve always been fascinated by East Berlin and have enjoyed touring the sites and these novels recreate it before my eyes. The descriptions are engrossing, the details are meticulous. It all feels so convincing and extremely insightful. David Young knows his subject, he’s done the research, and we reap the benefits of this in his fantastic set of books. And in Stasi Winter we travel to the far north of the country and you can almost feel the cold for yourself. It’s a frontier town – Denmark is only a short distance across the sea – and life in it is extremely tough. We read that the Republic’s conscientious objectors are sent to the city to do hard manual work, that Hitler built a huge entertainment complex here, that life is so hard for the most vulnerable, for the children of so-called traitors, and how sometimes the only way to survive is to listen to the manipulative lies of the Stasi. It is all so thoroughly engrossing.
In Stasi Winter, we meet characters from Stasi Child and Irma in particular is a scene stealer. Her story is central to the novel and it’s just as tough and upsetting as it is compelling. It’s because of her that Karin must make some difficult choices. Müller’s life is being changed. Müller’s relationship with Tilsner is a complicated one, as anyone knows who’s read the books, and it is a highlight of this novel. I’ve always liked Tilsner. He’s complicated and almost impossible to trust but his relationship with Karin, one senses, is one of the best things in his life. Stasi colonel Jäger, on the other hand, is more devious than ever.
Stasi Winter is a tense and exciting thriller (which builds to an absolutely brilliant climax), set during one of the most fascinating periods and places of recent history. Everything about it appeals and David Young does his theme and subject justice. And added to it we have the story of the young woman Irma, who, not for the first time, makes Müller question everything about her life. I can’t wait to see what happens to Karin next.