Stasi 77 by David Young - book review: With riveting flashbacks to the war years, a richly detailed landscape, and a cast of acutely observed characters
When a man is found bound, trapped and suffocated to death in a cotton mill in a corner of East Germany in 1977, it sets in motion an inquiry that leads back to the region’s dark and disturbing past.
Steep yourself in the suspicion and paranoia of the German Democratic Republic in the Cold War era as Yorkshire-born author David Young returns with his prize-winning Karin Müller crime thriller police series.
For those brought up a generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the word ‘Stasi’ may not conjure up the same cold chill. Stasi is the acronym for the former East Germany’s much-feared official state security service, a notoriously ruthless organisation which used informants to spy on its own population and which has been described as one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies ever created.
The effect on the country’s people was a climate of constant fear, a grey, colourless and tension-racked world that is hard to imagine today… but it’s one that has been brought to vivid life in these atmospheric and hard-hitting stories.
Young’s aim is to show what life was like ‘on the other side of the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart: the German Democratic Republic’s favourite term for the Berlin Wall’ and these immaculately researched thrillers are about as close as you can get to East Berlin in the dark days of the Cold War.
When Major Karin Müller of the German Democratic Republic’s People’s Police is called to a cotton-spinning factory near Frankenburg in the east of the country, she finds a man has been horribly murdered. Martin Ronnebach, a leading local Communist Party official, had been tortured, bound and trapped inside a room as a small fire burned nearby, slowly suffocating him.
Karin immediately senses that this is going to be a ‘difficult case’ because it will almost inevitably involve interference from the Stasi, an organisation that has often made her question whether the GDR really is a ‘model society.’
But her immediate problem is to discover why Ronnebach was targeted. Could his murderer simply be someone with a grudge against the factory’s enforced nationalisation, as Karin's Stasi colleagues insist? And why is her deputy, Hauptmann Werner Tilsner, behaving so strangely?
As more victims surface, it becomes clear that there is a cold-blooded killer taking their revenge as part of a deadly conspiracy. Soon Karin realises that in order to solve these barbaric crimes, she will need to delve into this area’s link to the Nazi past.
She must also work out if the Stasi is working with her on this case or against her because those who really run this Republic have secrets they would rather remain uncovered… and they will stop at nothing to keep them that way.
This new case for the increasingly sceptical Karin Müller moves into murky territory as our intrepid police officer must decide who she can trust as distressing events from the dying days of the Second World War slowly start to emerge.
The plucky, determined Karin, whose constant battle between motherhood and professionalism renders her achingly vulnerable to the emotional blackmail of the ruthless Stasi, is forced to make tough, personal decisions.
In trademark style, Young portrays the paranoid landscape of East Germany’s surveillance state with breathtaking detail and authenticity, but there is an added power to this gripping new story which blends an enthralling murder mystery with some truly shocking real history.
With riveting flashbacks to the war years, a richly detailed landscape, and a cast of acutely observed characters, Stasi 77 sees this talented author on his very best form.
(Zaffre, paperback, £7.99)