Crime fiction from Germany: a closer look

Annie Rutherford investigates...

Mention translated crime, and the chances are that people’s first association will be with Scandinavia. Or they might mention a long-running series with a semi-exotic setting and a TV adaptation – Inspector Montalbano, perhaps, or Maigret. On the whole, they aren’t going to think of Germany.

And yet crime fiction and thrillers are a huge segment of the German book market, with contemporary Krimis (crime novels) shifting tens of millions of copies and regularly topping the bestseller list. So what are German crime fans reading at the moment? And what should we be adding to our TBR piles?

Historical crime

“You’re writing about German crime fiction? So, like, Babylon Berlin?”

German historical crime is probably the genre that’s made the biggest impact on the UK book market – in part thanks to a certain British obsession with the Nazi period. Volker Kutcher’s Babylon Berlin series (tr. Niall Sellar) has been the runaway success story of recent years, exploring the Nazis’ rise to power through the eyes of a police investigator – with a pleasingly Cabaret-like atmosphere. Also recently out in English is Harald Gilber’s Germania (tr. Alexandra Roesch), which has garnered comparisons with Philip Kerr. The first book in the Oppenheimer series, Germania follows a Jewish detective who’s reactivated by the Gestapo in 1944 as their attempts to find a serial killer grow increasingly desperate.

Babylon Berlin Cover

If you’re a fan of Babylon Berlin and you read German, you might want to check out Susanne Goga’s Charlottenburg series, set in the murky world of Berlin’s alleged golden age in the 1920s. Each book is set in a different milieu, with murders taking place during fashion shows or linked to Germany’s burgeoning film industry. (I know what they say about judging books, but honestly, I’d buy the latest book in the series – Der Ballhaus Mörder – for the cover alone.) And as a sucker for historical crime with a female investigator (specific, I know), I can’t wait to get my hands on Anne Stern’s Fräulein Gold series, which sees a Berlin midwife solving crimes.

But as Kat Hall, translator and crime reviewer points out, recent Krimis have explored a far wider range of historical settings, with books like Uwe Klausner‘s ‘Sydow’ series engaging with the legacy of the GDR and the Baader-Meinhof terrorist attacks that shook Germany in the 1970s. Or if you want to go further back in time, Oliver Pötzsch’s The Hangman’s Daughter sequence (tr. Lee Chadeayne) has you covered – with the first book set during the witch trials of the 17th century.

Regiokrimi

A paid-up member of the cosy crime club, regional crime fiction is probably more established in Germany than it is in the UK. It divides into two camps. There are the Krimis which are set in very specific, generally rural German locations “using lots of dialect that wouldn’t be understood an hour down the road”, as Kat Hall puts it. Bavaria’s a particular hit here, with Rita Falk and author duo Klüpfel and Kobr scoring huge bestsellers in the German market; Falk’s books – with titles such as Knödel-Blues (Dumpling Blues) and Weisswurstconnection (White Sausage Connection) have even been turned into feature films.

For German-language readers longing for a bit more sun, though, there are also plenty of Regiokrimis set in Brittany, Provence and Sicily, with their authors – like Jean-Luc Bannelec of the bestselling Inspector Dupin series – adopting pseudonyms so as to seem to come from the place they write about.

Admittedly, regional crime fiction doesn’t lend itself quite so well to translation – but I’d like to make a special case for David Safier’s Miss Merkel (out in spring 2021; I’m hoping this is the start of a series), in which the erstwhile Chancellor retires to the Uckermark and starts solving crimes. Rights have sold for a number of languages but not yet English. I’m picturing a spin-off series with a sleuthing Nicola Sturgeon (The Girl with the Saltire Tattoo, perhaps?) – and of course, a cross-over, in which the two pair up…

Psychological suspense

If regional crime fiction is hard to sell abroad, then psychological suspense is the golden sibling. One big success over the last few years has been Romy Hausmann, notably with her debut, Liebes Kind (translated into English by Jamie Bulloch as Dear Child). Hailed as Gone Girl meets Room, Dear Child was critically acclaimed in the UK, with its English publisher Quercus describing it as the “thriller that starts where others end”. And if Dear Child gets you hooked, then keep your eyes peeled for Hausman’s second book Martha Schläft, just out in Bulloch’s translation as Sleepless.

Eco-thrillers / Disaster thrillers

If you like your crime and thrillers with a political edge, you might want to look to the eco-thriller. Germany’s breakout eco-thriller was Frank Schätzing’s Der Schwarm (translated by Sally-Ann Spencer as The Swarm), which saw Schätzing hailed as the German Stephen King. The 2004 novel – which sees the world’s oceans seeking their revenge on humankind – is currently being adapted into an English-language miniseries by German TV channel ZDF. (Schätzing’s more recent political thriller, Breaking News, is fresh off the press in its English translation by Charlotte Collins, Ruth Martin and Shaun Whiteside, so do keep your eyes peeled for that too.)

One Austrian author deserves a shout out here; a few years later, Mark Elsberg hit the bestseller lists with Blackout (tr. Marshall Yarbrough), a fast-paced thriller set in the days after the electricity grids go down across Europe: as the death rate soars, a former hacker and activist realises that he is the only man who can track down the cyber-attackers.

The upshot? Whether you like your crime fiction cosy or hardcore, historical or dystopian, there’s at least one Krimi out there for you…


With thanks to Kat Hall and Anne Vial for their insights and input

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