Andrea Maria Schenkel, The Murder Farm [Tannöd], translated by Anthea Bell (London: Quercus, 2008 ). A short, beautifully written chiller, that lingers in the mind long after the final page is turned 5 stars
First line: I spent the first summer after the end of the war with distant relations in the country.
This slim book, the first crime novel by German writer Andrea Maria Schenkel, has sold over a million copies, scooped both the Deutscher Krimi Preis (2007) and Swedish Crime Fiction Prize (2008), and was adapted for film in 2009.
The Murder Farm is a fictionalised account of a true story: the unsolved murder of the entire Danner family (farmer, wife, daughter, two children and a maid) on a remote Bavarian farm called Tannöd. As such, it’s drawn comparisons with Truman Capote’s famous work In Cold Blood (1966), which explored the murder of the American Clutter family in 1959.
I’m generally not one for ‘true crime’. In fact I positively go out of my way to avoid it. But this fictionalised treatment avoids the usual pitfalls of salaciousness and voyeurism to provide a compelling exploration, not just of the case itself, but of the victims, the murderer, and the community of which they form a part.
One interesting feature of the novel is its historical repositioning of the crime. The original murders apparently took place in the 1920s, but the author has chosen to transpose the action to the 1950s, the decade after the Second World War, when West Germany was struggling to come to terms with the Nazi past. The refusal to take responsibility for past crimes seeps into the narrative, resulting in an unflattering portrayal of small-minded rural attitudes and behaviours both during and after the war. (The seepage of an unsettling Nazi past into the present is a feature of a number of German crime novels, such as Jakob Arjouni’s Happy Birthday, Turk (1985), Pieke Biermann’s Violetta (1990), Petra Hammesfahr’s The Sinner (1999), and Nobel Prize-winning author Elfriede Jelinek’s Greed (2000).)
On another level, the novel is a dissection of power relations: between family members, between men and women, and between the state and the individual. The work’s examination of gender relations is particularly disturbing.
The novel opens with a short passage by the nameless narrator, who had previously spent some time in the village and feels compelled to return following the news of the murder, to try to understand the transformation of a former childhood idyll into a tabloid ‘murder farm’. The remaining 40, brief chapters comprise interviews with various members of the farming community, passages from the perspective of murderer and murder victims, and prayers for the dead.
The narrator-as-detective and reader glean various clues to the identity of the murderer and the motivation for the crime from the individual accounts given by those close to the family, such as Betty (schoolfriend aged 8), Ludwig Eibl (postman aged 32) and Anna Meier (shopkeeper aged 52). However, the reader’s investigative function is privileged: he or she will come away from the narrative knowing who committed the crime (at least in this imagining of it), while the narrator and villagers remain none the wiser, with only two exceptions. Some form of justice may or may not prevail at the end, but the secrets and silences that typify this closed community will remain.
The Murder Farm is an excellent example of the crime genre’s ability to explore a range of weighty themes. The opening pages are available on Amazon here.
Mrs. Peabody awards The Murder Farm an unsettling and brilliantly creepy 5 stars.