With one agent for every 166 of its people, one in every 63 a collaborator and one in around seven an informer, East Germany’s Ministry for State Security, the notorious Stasi, ensured that the country was perhaps the closest in reality to the intrusive and repressive totalitarian state depicted in George Orwell’s “1984”. With such intensive surveillance in place, was police needed at all, and if present, how did they operate?
Some answers are provided here – in journalist-turned-author David Young’s debut but intensely suspenseful and captivating novel, which also evokes the atmosphere sense of life in the GDR in the mid-1970s.
The tale begins in January 1975 when police Oberleutnant (first lieutenant) Karin Muller, the youngest and only woman chief of a murder commission in the country, is called in when a teenage girl’s body is found near the Berlin Wall (or the Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier as it was officially called).
Leave alone the question why the Kripo (criminal police) is being called to investigate what is a matter for the border troops or Stasi, who are already present, she finds more mysteries at the scene, including that the girl seeming to be trying to escape – from the West, contrary to the usual victims, found escaping in that direction.
Smooth-talking, immaculately-groomed Stasi Oberstleutnant (lt. col.) Klaus Jager tells her it seems the victim was apparently shot from the West which is “the official – and preliminary – Ministry of State Security account of events” and Muller and her assistant, Unterleutnant (second lieutenant) Werner Tilsner, have been brought in to identify her “and to find evidence to support this account”.
And – in a scene reminiscent of Martin Cruz Smith’s “Gorky Park” – he advises Muller that if they “find evidence to the contrary, I would suggest you keep such evidence tightly controlled. And bring it straight to me”.
As Muller and her team investigate, she finds out that it is scarcely a simple case of murder, but something much more darker, connected to high-level intrigue – and linked to her own family in some way.
Running parallel is the account, dated in the previous year, of what appears to be a traumatised teenager, separated from her family and sent to a “Jugendwerkhof” (a cross between a youth reform home and work camp) and her bid to escape, along with her friends.
While Muller and her team make slow progress – while also needing to visit West Berlin, she also has to contend with her deteriorating relationship with her husband, Gottfried (who is not viewed very favourably by the regime and is eventually arrested), discern why her subordinate (with whom she has an on-off relationship) is in thrall to Jager, and most vitally, what the Stasi, or at least Jager, wants them to do.
Then there is the question of how the teenager, whose frightened recollections we read, is connected with the case and her eventual fate, and slowly both strands combine seamlessly for a roller-coaster of a story with twists plenty and frequent to a shocking finale – or two.
The story may be basically at heart be a police procedural (and a grand read even then) but what sets its apart and much above is the most – painstakingly-researched and rendered – millieu it is set in – a society where anyone has to be cautiously watchful in all interactions – even be it family of friend and life for any moral individual is a struggle to maintain integrity when loyalty and obedience take higher precedence over truth.
And then there is an unforgettable lesson in how Stasi, one of the most effective but unconscientious ruthless security services ever, operated.
Another plus point is that there is no attempt to factor in what the future held less than a decade and a half away – but East Germany then was at the height of its power, and the best developed among all Soviet satellites.
This also holds prospect for more Karin Muller adventures, which will hopefully come soon and regularly.
By Vikas Datta