Category Archives: Cold War

Stasi Winter by David Young

Zaffre | 2020 (9 January) | 354p | Review copy | Buy the book

Stasi Winter by David YoungStasi 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.

Other reviews and posts
Stasi Child
Stasi Wolf
A Darker State (now called Stasi State)
Stasi 77
Guest post on the historical background of Stasi 77

Black Sun by Owen Matthews

Bantam Press | 2019 (3 October) | 336p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Black Sun by Owen MatthewsIt is 1961 and the Cold War rages between the Soviet Union and the United States, fueled not only by the space race but also by the competition to dominate the technology of nuclear war. Arzamas-16 has been established as the centre for the Soviet Union’s nuclear research and it is there in this secret, closed city that Soviet and German scientists develop weapons of mass destruction. Just days before the biggest nuclear bomb ever built is due to be tested in the atmosphere above the frozen north, one of the key scientists involved in its development is found dead, murdered by radiation poisoning. The murder shakes the Kremlin to its core and so Major Alexander Vasin of the Special Cases branch of State Security is sent to investigate. He finds a secretive, privileged community of scientists, soldiers, police and their families and not one of them wants to help Vasin’s investigation. But Vasin has no choice but to dig and to stir, uncovering secrets, upsetting people, while all the time trying to keep his own secrets safe. Meanwhile, the countdown to the detonation of the Armageddon bomb continues.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Soviet Union. I visited it a couple of times and I’ll never forget it. And so I’m drawn to novels, especially thrillers, about life, politics and crime behind the Iron Curtain. Black Sun was irresistible, not least because it’s based on a true story and that makes it absolutely terrifying. It shows so dramatically and effectively how close the world was to annihilation during those Cold War years and how the weight of this was carried on the shoulders of so few.

The novel contains a fair amount of detail about the science of nuclear technology but it isn’t daunting. Vasin is no expert and he is our witness. As he learns, so do we, and what he learns is incredible. But every bit as fascinating as the science is Arzamas-16 itself. Owen Matthews brings this real place to life with so much detail and colour. The people who live there are unusual. They live privileged lives, listen to banned music, wear banned clothes and eat, drink and smoke so much better than normal Soviet citizens. But they live secluded lives, shut away from the rest of the country by fences and guards. We see how this affects the wives perhaps more than the men. And when you have such a self-contained community, fueled by vodka and stress, passions can flare. Murder can happen.

I was particularly interested in how the legacy of the war and Stalin’s Great Purges affects these people. More than one served time on a Gulag, another survived the siege of Leningrad, another is a Nazi who experimented on people (now he has to make do with goats). It all adds up to a rich portrayal of a place in which emotions are complicated and life might be privileged, but it wasn’t always this way for many of the citizens, and then there’s the cloud of nuclear war that hangs over them all.

Vasin is an interesting character but we’re not allowed to get too close. This is in some ways quite a cold and clinical thriller. Not everything, not everyone, is black or white. It’s much more complicated than that. Vasin, like most characters in the book, isn’t entirely likeable and nor, I think would you expect him to be. He is a KGB officer, after all. But he does have a genuine desire to seek out the truth, which is no easy thing when most people have secrets, including Vasin, including the scientist who was killed. Although Black Sun is a cold thriller, set in a very cold place, it is extremely compelling and involving. More than anything, though, it is horrifying to learn about what was going on this most secret of places and how it could have had devastating consequences for us all.

The Path to the Sea by Liz Fenwick

HQ | 2019 (6 June) | 423p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Path to the Sea by Liz FenwickBoskenna is a beautiful house, standing proud on a Cornish cliff, a place of comfort and security for three generations of Trewin women – grandmother Joan, her daughter Diana and Diana’s daughter Lottie. Each of them has spent long periods of time away from the house – and from each other – but they’re always drawn back to it. But now they gather together for a final time because Joan is dying. This is the last chance for Diana to work out her differences with her mother and it’s the only chance Lottie, herself on the run from events in London, has to learn the truth about her family and what happened that terrible August in 1962.

Liz Fenwick writes beautifully. She pours her heart into her novels and their characters and The Path to the Sea is no different. Cornwall is a special place to this author and she fills the novel with its colours, sea air, beauty and wildness. It’s all extremely appealing and this is enhanced in The Path to the Sea by such an intriguing and fascinating story, which is slowly and carefully revealed to us and to the Trewin women.

The narrative is divided between Joan, Diana and Lottie, which means that we move between the present day and the early 1960s when family and friends gather to celebrate the birthday of Diana’s father. Something terrible happens which destroys the relationship between Joan and her daughter, something that has been kept hidden from Lottie. But there are clues in Boskenna, which open up the past to Lottie and remind Diana of a childhood that was filled with love.

There’s something extra and unexpected in The Path to the Sea, which I particularly loved. Much of the novel is set in the early 1960s, the Cold War, and this is when Joan’s character comes to the fore and we realise what an exciting, glamorous daring woman she was, who had dabbled in danger. It’s brilliant stuff and it kept me guessing! And it makes the scenes set in the present day all the more poignant and upsetting as we learn that not all is as it seems.

The Path to the Sea would make the perfect summer holiday read. The Cornish setting is stunning and the structure of the novel – with its three generations of one family – is very effective and involving. It’s luscious, glamorous, tragic, uplifting, with an intriguing puzzle at its heart. Fabulous!

Other review
The Returning Tide

The historical inspiration for Stasi 77 – guest post by David Young

Stasi 77 by David YoungDavid Young’s latest novel, Stasi 77, was published by Zaffre on 18 April and it’s an absolute corker! It’s the fourth in a series set in 1970s’ East Berlin and East Germany which features police detective Major Karin Müller. I’ve loved all of them but I think that Stasi 77 is my favourite. It’s also the darkest, as the post below indicates. You can read my review here. To celebrate the publication, I’m delighted to present for the blog tour such a fascinating guest post by David Young in which he discusses the novel’s historical background.

The historical inspiration for Stasi 77

The clue to the year my latest novel is set in, is given in the title. Stasi 77 takes place in communist East Germany in 1977. But that’s true only up to a point – a lot of the action, and the real-life inspiration for the book, is from 32 years earlier. In the case of my protagonist, Major Karin Müller, that’s a whole lifetime ago – the year she was conceived.

What I’ve tried to do is explore the lasting effects of the Second World War on the East German state – a country that actually emerged from the aftermath of the war, and the division of a defeated Nazi Germany into zones of occupation. The Soviet zone was transformed in October 1949 into the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the German Democratic Republic – a new socialist state, but still very much at Moscow’s beck and call.

The inspiration for Stasi 77 came from a Nazi massacre – sometimes considered the worst or most senseless single-day massacre they committed – which took place in the final weeks of the war, on what was later to become East German soil. You can easily find it on the internet although I’m not mentioning its name here, and in the book I’ve deliberately placed a dedication and maps from the time amongst the back matter to try to avoid spoilers.

That’s because I’ve moved slightly out of my comfort zone, and based my sub-narrative – through the eyes of a French slave labourer for the Nazis – very much on real-life events. Everything that happens to my fictional French character up until the point of the massacre, really happened to the labour camp prisoners – although it’s an amalgamation of first and second-hand accounts of different victims and survivors.

Where the fiction starts is in my extrapolation: what would happen if one of the survivors of the massacre (and there only were a handful) came back to what had become East Germany to wreak his revenge?

So my 1977 police case, led by Volkspolizei Serious Crimes Department head Karin Müller and her deputy Werner Tilsner, is pure fiction, bolted onto thinly-disguised fact.

I thought long and hard about the ethics of this. Should you create what is meant to be commercial fiction out of a horrific real-life event? In the end, I concluded that anything that serves to raise the profile of the massacre and its memorial site must be a good thing. If I’m wrong, I apologise.

The other thing I was interested in was what happened to Nazis in East Germany. The socialist state was avowedly ‘anti-fascist’: the Berlin Wall was even officially called ‘The Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart’ (or Barrier). A euphemism, of course, and few if any of the GDR’s citizens really believed it existed to keep fascists out, rather than imprison the state’s own population.

But did members of the Nazi party just disappear into thin air in the east, or become communists overnight? In Stasi 77, some of my Nazis become members of the East German secret police, the Stasi. And despite the fictional nature of the 1970s end of the story, the idea of Nazis being recruited in this way is rooted in reality. For example, Der Spiegel in 2014 published research about Auschwitz SS guard Josef Settnik and how the Stasi made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: his past in the SS would be forgotten if he cooperated with the Ministry for State Security and spied on members of his own Catholic community. There are several other examples. The article quotes Henry Leide of the Rostock branch of the Federal Commissioner for the documents of the State Security Service of the GDR as saying: ‘Nazi perpetrators had a great opportunity in the GDR to get away scot-free if they behaved inconspicuously or cooperated.’

At the end of the day, though, the novel is a piece of fiction. It’s also meant to be entertainment, despite its sometimes grim contents. My hope is that if readers are moved by it, they might seek out the real history for themselves. Or indeed include the Memorial at the massacre site on any trips to Germany, in order to pay their respects to the dead.

In these difficult political times in the UK, history is an excellent tutor of what can happen if intolerance, xenophobia and hatred are allowed to flourish.

Reviews
Stasi Child
Stasi Wolf
A Darker State
Stasi 77

For other stops on the tour, please do take a look at the poster below.

Stasi Blog Tour Graphic

Stasi 77 by David Young

Zaffre | 2019 (18 April) | 377p | Review copy | Buy the book

Stasi 77 by David YoungEast 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.

Other reviews
Stasi Child
Stasi Wolf
A Darker State

Penguin Modern Classics: A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré

A Small Town in Germany by John Le CarreOn 27 September 2018, Penguin completed its nine-year project to publish 21 of John Le Carré’s novels as Penguin Modern Classics, making him the living author with the greatest number of works awarded this classics status. New to the list will be Little Drummer Girl, which the BBC is about to bring to our small screens. I’m really proud to have been invited to take part in the blog tour to celebrate the project, as well as the BBC series of Little Drummer Girl. It’s my role to introduce you to A Small Town In Germany, which, like so many in the Le Carré Penguin Modern Classics has such a gorgeous, striking cover.

A Small Town in Germany was published by Penguin Modern Classics in 2011 but the book itself first appeared in print back in 1968 and is one of the spy novels that doesn’t feature George Smiley. Here is a little of what the novel is about:

West Germany, a simmering cauldron of radical protests, has produced a new danger to Britain: Karfeld, menacing leader of the opposition. At the same time Leo Harting, a Second Secretary in the British Embassy, has gone missing – along with more than forty Confidential embassy files. Alan Turner of the Foreign Office must travel to Bonn to recover them, facing riots, Nazi secrets and the delicate machinations of an unstable Europe in the throes of the Cold War.

As Turner gets closer to the truth of Harting’s disappearance, he will discover that the face of International relations – and the attentions of the British Ministry itself – is uglier that he could possibly have imagined.

The small German town in question is Bonn, West Germany, and it’s a foggy, wet place – a dangerous place in this time of Cold War and suspicion. It is a time when Europe is trying to draw closer together, to tighten its Union, in the face of a considerable amount of instability and hostility. Alan Turner isn’t keen to visit but he has no choice. It’s in Bonn that he must look for the missing British Embassy Secretary, Leo, a man that remains elusive throughout the novel.

The Little Drummer Girl by John Le CarreA Small Town in Germany is one of Le Carre’s earliest novels and takes place without the presence of George Smiley. Nevertheless, it still contains the hallmarks of Le Carré’s skill – his ability to describe in great detail without giving much away, keeping the reader as much in the dark as his agents. The time and place are evoked with great clarity, despite the puzzles that haunt each page.

I’ve read most of Le Carré’s novels over the years and I would definitely call myself a fan. I do think that A Small Town in Germany is one of the more challenging of the books – it takes a while to establish in which direction it’s heading and it can, at times, confuse – but it is so steeped in the times, which seem particularly pertinent now.

I have a spare copy of A Small Town in Germany to give away, so if you’d like to read it, please leave a comment here or on Twitter.

This is such an exciting blog tour to be a part of, with each stop focusing on a different book. A spy book bonanza! For the other stops on the tour, please do take a look at the poster.

John le Carre - Blog Tour Card

Nightfall Berlin by Jack Grimwood

Michael Joseph | 2018 (17 May) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Nightfall Berlin by Jack GrimwoodIt is 1986 and at last there are hopes that the Cold War might finally be about to thaw. Gorbachev has initiated talks to reduce the number of nuclear weapons – if he had his way he’d ban them all – and the world is watching. But it’s business as usual for British Intelligence Officer Major Tom Fox, who has been ordered to East Berlin to organise the return to the west of Sir Cecil Blackburn, a notorious spy who defected to the east many years before. It seems he wants to die at home. But to many in Britain Sir Cecil remains a traitor who still hasn’t paid the full price for his sins. This will be a delicate mission. But the most carefully arranged plans have a habit of falling apart and it’s not long before Fox is on the run, wanted by both east and west for murder.

In order to escape alive, Fox must first find out who is responsible for the crime and why. He must hurry. Anyone who might be able to help is being silenced at a merciless rate. The stakes are high, the consequences of failure devastating.

Nightfall Berlin is the second Cold War thriller by Jack Grimwood to feature Major Fox and, although I haven’t read Moskva (yet!), this didn’t affect my enjoyment of Nightfall Berlin at all. Grimwood introduces Fox and his world perfectly, revealing little bits about his wife and son, making it clear how central to his life they are, even though he is forced to spend most of his time away from them. As a result of that, and various other things, this is a family in crisis and Fox’s worry about this is there as a shadow in the background all the way through the novel. I thought this was done brilliantly. It’s not laboured, it’s enigmatic and mysterious, there is an absence in Fox’s life.

But then we get on to the main business of the book and that is a Cold War thriller that had me glued to the pages. This is fantastic stuff! We follow Fox as he moves through a vividly realised East Berlin, tracked by Stasi agents, and then there are the spies, both Russian and British. In this world it’s hard to trust anyone. But there is even more to this story than the fractured Berlin of the 1980s. This is a city that can’t escape the past and the end of the Second World War. There’s a legacy from those days that hangs over this world. It’s a fascinating story.

As you’d expect from an excellent Cold War thriller, this is a complex, involved and tense novel. The reader must stay alert and is rewarded for their attention. We meet so many men and women with extraordinary stories to tell. But at the heart of the novel lies Major Tom Fox whose past haunts him every bit as much as Berlin is haunted by its own past.

I loved Nightfall Berlin so much that as soon as I finished it I bought Moskva, a thriller set in Cold War Moscow. I’m now hooked on Major Tom Fox and this series. If you have any interest at all in this most fascinating period of modern history then I suspect you will be too.

I’m delighted to post this review as part of the Blog Tour. For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.

A Darker State by David Young

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.

Other reviews
Stasi Child
Stasi Wolf

Stasi Wolf by David Young

Zaffre | 2017 (9 February) | 402p | Review copy | Buy the book

Stasi Wolf by David YoungStasi Wolf is the second novel to feature East German police detective Oberleutenant Karin Müller, taking place a few months after the events of Stasi Child. Both novels stand alone very well but, as Stasi Wolf begins, life has changed for Karin Müller. And so this review assumes you’ve read Stasi Child.

It is 1975 in East Berlin and the career of police officer Oberleutenant Karin Müller has taken quite a knock since the conclusion of her last case. It’s never a good idea to get on the wrong side of the Stasi. But someone it seems wants to give her a second chance. To the south west of Berlin lies Halle-Neustadt, a brand new model town of apartment blocks, all built to the most modern specifications to house worthy citizens. But not all is perfect in this communist paradise. Newborn twins have been stolen from the town’s hospital and one has been found dead. The Stasi are determined that the crime should be solved with the utmost tact and secrecy – nothing must be allowed to tarnish the reputation of Halle-Neustadt. Karin Müller is given the case and, with little choice in the matter, packs up her life and heads south.

Halle-Neustadt is no ordinary town. Its streets have no names, it buildings are just numbered and many of them are empty and silent, the perfect place to hide a crime. Prevented from making public searches or appeals for information, Müller is well aware of the difficulty she faces as the clock ticks away and the surviving twin remains lost. And it is only a matter of time before more children will need to be found.

Stasi Child was such a fine debut novel from David Young, introducing one of the most fascinating and original detectives in contemporary crime fiction. Incredible as it seems, Stasi Wolf is even better, taking us back into the dangerous, chilly setting of the DDR, where spies hide among neighbours and Stasi eyes keep watch. But what makes Karin Müller particularly fascinating is her relationship to the state. She believes in communism and, despite her conflict and unease with the Stasi, she still believes this society can work. Even though she has seen it at its worst.

In this new case, removed from East Berlin, we learn more of the ways in which the Stasi affect so many aspects of society but driving this excellent novel on is the mystery itself. Ultimately, this is a novel about child snatching and that is something that goes beyond politics. But while there are themes here that affect people wherever they are from, in whatever period, East Germany in the mid 1970s is not a place that can be disentangled from its government, just as it cannot forget its past and the legacy of war and defeat.

Stasi Wolf is utterly steeped in atmosphere. Even when its weather is hot, the story still chills, the menace remains sinister. David Young immerses us in its time and place but the characterisation is equally successful. Karin Müller stands out but there are others, too, that you won’t forget. Müller’s personal life is an important feature of this novel and it winds through the story, adding further mystery. Pieces of narrative move between the past and present, hinting at other troubled lives. It is totally gripping. This is not a novel that’s easy to put down, and its conclusion will have you on the edge of your seat.

Stasi Wolf is a hugely accomplished novel, scoring high as both historical fiction and crime fiction. I love both genres and so I couldn’t have been more entertained by it. This is a series with legs and we’re very lucky to have it.

You can read another review at Novel Heights.

Stasi Child by David Young

Stasi Child | David Young | ebook: 2015, Pb: 2016 | Twenty7 | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Stasi Child by David YoungIt is 1974 and Berlin is a city divided. The risk that some are prepared to take to flee from East to West is well-known – and not just the risk to themselves but also to their families by association – and so it is a surprise to say the least when Oberleutenant Karin Müller and her deputy Werner Tilsner are called out one wintry night to take charge of the body of a young girl, killed while running not from East to West but from West to East. Müller and Tilsner work for the East German criminal police but it’s not unexpected when Klaus Jäger, a high-ranking officer from the state police, the infamous Stasi, takes charge of the case, especially when car tracks at the scene suggest that an official vehicle might have been involved. Further evidence suggests that this murder scene is not at all as it first appeared. As Jäger’s icey grip on the case tightens, Müller is left in such a precarious position that, in order to help find justice for the murdered girl, little more than a child, she must endanger far more than her career.

This is a cold, cold world into which we are immersed. It’s a bitterly chilly winter but the ice goes deeper. Karin’s marriage is in trouble, not helped by her attraction to her deputy, a charmer if ever there was one, but whereas Karin works for the authorities and believes in the ideology of her country, her husband does not. In fact, he’s had reason to hate it. He’s not shared any of this with his wife, just as she has carried on independently with her own life, but Karin has need to relearn her relationship with him, to get to know him again, the man he has become once the state had worked its harm.

The story alternates between two stories – Karin’s investigation (as well as her relationship with her husband) and the first-hand account of Irma, a teenage girl trapped in a reform school in an isolated and especially cold part of East Germany. Chillingly, the building was once a holiday complex built by Hitler. Irma’s story presents a further harrowing side to the dystopian nightmare of the DDR and adds an urgency to Karin’s investigations as the two narratives wind their way together.

Stasi Child is a deeply atmospheric and haunting read. The oppression of the state lies heavily over the characters and over the whole novel. With no doubt at all, this is such a fascinating time and there is an undeniable thrill in reading about the Wall (otherwise known as the Anti-Fascist Barrier) and its checkpoints, with the lure of the West just metres away. I love Berlin and it’s a fabulous place to explore. This book made me want to head straight back to it. Stasi Child captures the mood of the time, place and ideology brilliantly. It also brings to the fore the sadness and melancholy – the drabness and despair – that some endured during these days. Until some of them could endure it no longer.

The mystery is such a good one and there is plenty of suspense and tension as events unfold. But this is mixed with a fair amount of tragedy, making it a thoughtful read as well as a gripping one. The characters of Karin, Irma and Karin’s husband are especially well drawn. It’s hard not to suffer with them, or worry for them, and that makes some sections of the novel painful, brutal, but all the more rewarding.

I love a novel that evokes so well a lost time and place, especially when mixing it up with an intriguing plot and strong characters. Perfect, really. The fact that Stasi Child is a debut novel makes it all the more remarkable. I really hope Karin Müller returns, and in the not too distant future.