Christian von Ditfurth, A Paragon of Virtue (Mann ohne Makel), translated from the German by Helen Atkins (London: The Toby Press 2008 ). An intriguing crime novel which sees historian turn detective to help solve a murder with links to the Nazi past 4 stars
Opening sentence: The pain shot into his left knee.
Christian von Ditfurth is a German historian turned crime writer, whose debut novel, A Paragon of Virtue, was a best-seller in Germany and forms the first of the successful ‘Stachelmann series’ (currently six novels).
Part police procedural and part PI mystery, the novel divides its investigative duties between Ossi Winter, a detective with the Hamburg police, and his old friend Josef Maria Stachelmann, a historian at Hamburg University whose area of expertise is the Third Reich. It’s ultimately Stachelmann’s archival research that will prove decisive in solving the murders of a property dealer’s wife and two children, whose deaths have taken place at yearly intervals since 1999 – he’s both a detective of history, piecing together a forgotten past through archival clues, and a detective who uses those clues to solve a present-day crime. In the process, Stachelmann becomes the historical guide of a post-war Hamburg police force with scant knowledge of its Nazi past. As he educates Ossi and his colleagues about police complicity in Jewish deportations and the seizure of Jewish assets, the reader is given a sobering insight into the criminal activities of the Nazi state.
This is a highly interesting novel, set at the turn of the new millennium when a reunited Germany was (once again) examining its relation to the Nazi past. Stachelmann’s position on this issue is made very clear: we’re told he’s the author of a study entitled Forgetting and Repressing, which is critical of post-war Germany’s lack of engagement with National Socialist history. Unsurprisingly, the big theme of the novel is justice for the crimes of the past, and it’s one that’s problematised throughout the narrative: what form should post-war justice take; to what extent, if at all, has justice been done in the decades since the war; can any form of justice ever truly be considered adequate? These questions are most fully explored in the sections told from the murderer’s perspective: to a significant degree, the novel evolves into a ‘whydunit’, with the murderer’s motivation increasingly at the forefront of the narrative.
The narrative zips along at a good pace and deploys its two contrasting detective figures well. My only reservation is the characterisation of Stachelmann, who was rather irritating at times: his regular bouts of self-pity and neurotic tendencies are rather overplayed, and would have benefited from some judicious editing. On the other hand, the author’s integration of complex historical material into the crime narrative deserves praise: the information given about the operations of the Nazi state is illuminating but never feels too much like a history lesson.
I’m very interested by the fact that von Ditfurth, as a historian, has chosen to disseminate information about the Nazi era in his capacity as crime author. It would be easy to be cynical and suspect purely monetary motives (it’s still very much the case that ‘Nazis sell’), but I do think that such writers also have a genuine educative aim, and see the crime narrative as an ideal vehicle for the discussion of the criminal activities of the Nazi regime or other repressive states (Tim Rob Smith’s Child 44 also springs to mind here). The original German novel has been reprinted seventeen times, and will therefore almost certainly have had more readers than academic studies on the period, which are far less accessible (in both senses of the word) than popular fiction.
The translation into English was supported by a grant from the Goethe-Institut, which suggests that the text is seen as having historical and cultural value. The author’s website (in German) is available here. A short excerpt in English is available here.
Two other Stachelmann novels engage with the legacy of the German past, but have yet to be translated into English. They are Lüge eines Lebens (Lifelong Lie, 2008) and Labyrinth des Zorns (Labyrinth of Rage, 2009), the fourth and fifth novels in the series.
Mrs. Peabody awards A Paragon of Virtue a slightly wobbly, but very interesting 4 stars.