Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
David Young's Stasi Child leaves me feeling like some of the television critics I have heard recently pointing out the peculiarity of Channel Four calling its new thriller series 'Deutschland Eighty-Three'. Actually, the TV company seem to write it 'Deutschland 83' but the number is always said in English [as opposed to numerals] on the trailers. Surely, though, as the critics have said, either it should be 'Germany Eighty-Three' or 'Deutschland drei und achtzig'? Stasi Child threatens to be that sort of hybrid but written on a much larger scale.
We heard about the horrors of the Stasi, just after the Berlin Wall fell; revelations followed (if you read the foreign news section of a newspaper that had continued to print foreign news) as some of their leaders were prosecuted for shootings and extra-legal executions of escapees. We had the film 'The Lives of Others' which detailed the paranoia that resulted, thanks to the Stasi.
For many Germans in the East, the new state and its Ministry of State Security must have come as a nightmare. Though East Germany was less than half of the German Reich, the Stasi had 91,000 employees when the Nazi Gestapo had had only 32,000 for the whole country, and while the Stasi continued to rely on people denouncing their neighbours, so that the effect of those 91,000 was massively magnified. It also adopted a policy of 'Zersetzung' (which it taught to all staff), which Wikipedia describes as a method to undermine their self-confidence and self-esteem. Operations were designed to intimidate and destabilise citizens under observation, by subjecting them to repeated disappointment, and to socially alienate them by interfering with and disrupting their relationships with others, as in social undermining. The aim was to induce personal crises in victims, leaving them too unnerved and psychologically distressed to have the time and energy for anti-government activism.
That would be grim enough. Now imagine characters married to each other but with an enormous gulf between them. One is a Stasi officer, who thinks she has joined an ordinary police force; the other once worked as a teacher. Unfortunately, he was a teacher at a state special school. Let us put 'state special school' into a British context – such a school might have been one where the staff are being investigated by Scotland Yard's Operation Midland today, or if could be one of today's Youth Training Centres, where half of the staff have had to be removed over their treatment of inmates. Stasi Child's school, though, was in East Germany and a synonym for 'East German' in this case is 'worse'. Now the teacher is going to be even more cold towards his wife, because he cannot tell her about his religious conversion in an atheist state, while that conversion means he is going to be in line for a bit of the old 'Zersetzung', whether his Stasi wife knows about it, or not.
I enjoyed Stuart Kaminsky's Inspector Rostnikov series, set in Moscow, while I found that the BBC Radio 4 adaptations of Qiu Xiaolong's Chief Inspector Chen Cao books, set in Communist Shanghai, left me cold. I moved from one to the other as I read Stasi Child, as the story moves from the discovery of a corpse that has been dumped, nominally by a vehicle from West Berlin, and expands into the realms of a super-villain with an underground lair. It would have been better to stay with the claustrophobia that is found in the streets of the city, and in the punishment rooms of a special school. David Young is capable of working with those settings, for instance, as Oberleutnant Karin Muller organises a clever trap to identify the tyre prints of a suspect vehicle via some temporary roadworks and a short diversion. I would have liked to see more of that covert intelligence.
I hear that Jo Nesbo's first books have not really made their way to us because they are not as strong as his later works. Stasi Child should be the first of a new crime imprint – I hope that David Young and Karin Muller's names will appear again in the list. There are, after all, few crimes of which the righteous are incapable in their righteousness, and someone needs to bring them to justice, and reveal the machinations of a political regime that undermines their population.