Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
First bombed then occupied by the British, the port of Hamburg is in ruins. It’s the bitter winter of 1947, ships are locked in the ice, there are no trains because there’s no coal.
People don’t live in the gutted city, they survive - just, starving and freezing. As the mayor observes to Frank Stave, his police chief, things will be better in the spring, folk will just starve. The chief inspector himself dines on three slimy defrosted potatoes and his last cabbage which he fries and pretends it’s sausage. Stave is a miserable solitary man, his wife killed in the fire-bombing, his son missing on the Russian front.
So the scene is set bleakly for murder when the body of a girl is found naked and garrotted on rubble in the working class district. Prostitutes abound but after seven years of increasing deprivation even they are mostly skin and bone. The surprising difference about this woman is that she was well-nourished with carefully manicured hands that had never known manual labour. There is no clue to her identity and no one reports her missing.
Stave is assisted in the investigation by Maschke, an officer from Vice (because at first it was assumed the dead woman was a prostitute), and MacDonald from British Intelligence. Maschke is unlikeable, seeming to be affected by the corruption and brutality of his field while MacDonald, representing the occupying force, is sympathetic and intelligent. But in the face of a frustrating investigation Stave hides his feelings from his officers while maintaining a frank rapport with the mayor and the public prosecutor. In this novel you must look beyond the ghastly aftermath of war and concentrate on plot and the intriguing characters.
A second body is found: naked, garrotted. The same killer? But this time it’s an old man, and Jewish. No one comes forward to report him missing. No one talks to the police. The British have tried to purge the upper echelons of the Nazi hierarchy but petty officials have been missed. People walk on eggs. The next door neighbour or the man from the Council could be a former Nazi. And then an informant appears: a gaunt beauty, a former aristocrat reduced to scavenging in the ruins for souvenir art which she sells to British officers. Stave is attracted and in this febrile climate has no qualms about falling in love with a potential suspect.
The pace quickens; more murders indicate the possibility of a whole family being targeted, and another witness is found with memories of a wartime atrocity. The story, at first so bleak and masculine, broadens its scope with the advent of women and children, becomes more tolerable, less depressing despite that jolt of historical violence. Stave is in love, there is word of his son, the temperature rises – and the man walks into a trap. But he is a series character and this is the first in a trilogy so he will survive. The climax lies less in the confrontation itself than in the unmasking of the killer and the motivation.
Neatly done and we look forward to the next one by Rademacher.
Translated by Peter Millar