June 27, 2012

Murder (and literature) close to home


Jacques Berndorf in the Krimihotel

This week Melville releases Wolf Haas’ Brenner and God—about which Carl Hiaasen, no less, has said “Brenner and God is one of the cleverest—and most thoroughly enjoyable—mysteries that I’ve read in a long time.” Haas’ Brenner is an ex-detective with a new job chauffeuring a construction magnate’s daughter to and fro on the Autobahn. Ah, the Autobahn, you say! I’ve heard of that. Well, in Germany, there is an entire category of crime novels that are designed to produce exactly that type of reaction but even more acutely: these are the regional Krimi, crime novels that are set in specific locations. And not just Berlin and Munich, mind you, but small towns all over Germany, with real street names, bars, and other local landmarks called out.

Over at the Goethe Institut’s website, Franziska Gerlach has traced the roots of regional Krimi:

“Starting with Eifel Blues in 1989, Jacques Berndorf  [the pseudonym of Michael Breute] established the genre of the so-called ‘Eifel thrillers’, whose protagonist Siggi Baumeister soon gathered round him a loyal community of fans. What the fans like about the series is not only the thrilling plots but also the local color delivered with the setting in the mountainous stretch of land between Trier and Aachen. That the German reader likes best to get the creeps when murder and mayhem take place on his own doorstep has since been recognized not only by the creative duo behind Kluftinger. Nicola Förg, Jörg Maurer, Birgit Lautenbach and many other writers have now emptied a veritable cornucopia of crime novels onto the German book market.”

The Eifel region has become a tourist destination for crime fans, and it’s now home to the Krimihotel, Germany’s first crime-thriller-themed hotel with rooms named things like “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Arsenic and Old Lace.” While in Eifel, you can also go on clue-hunting walks with “Chief Inspectors” and drink “Black Death” espressos in Café Sherlock. And it’s not just Eifel: the crime website, Krimi-Couch.de, has a handy map showing towns and regions around the country with drop-down menus listing writers who’ve set their novels in these locations. The Ruhr region is particularly speckled with dark deeds and moody detectives. Ruhr, like Eifel, has gotten into the spirit of things with a biannual festival, “Murder on the Hellweg,” which is the name of the ancient trading and migration corridor that cuts through the region, but also recalls the word Helvegr, “the route to the underworld” or “the way of the dead.” Events are held in prisons, power plants, coal mines, castle ruins—in past years, there was even a special train laid on, the Hellweg Crime Express.

Some critics connect regional Krimi to the tradition of the Heimatroman (homeland novel), a nineteenth-century genre of novels that celebrate rural life, community, and sense of rootedness, and turn away from industrialization and urbanization. It was a genre that neatly fitted the aims of the National Socialists and shaded into the Blut und Boden (blood and soil) literature of the Nazi era. On the whole, the Krimi sound more anti-Heimatroman than not, less village cozy than “this is what you never knew about your hometown.” And I can see the appeal. Wilson Street, Lambertville, New Jersey, I’m looking at you!


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.