Babylon Berlin, Miss Marple, and The Bridge of Spies

We spent a week in Berlin at the end of January. It was freezy and snowy and altogether delightful, not least because of the copious amounts of food we consumed, from Bratwurst to Vietnamese dumplings to stacks of lovely cake (pics below). And as ever, the city was also a Krimi paradise, with its specialist crime bookshops and plentiful crime fiction events.

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Kino Babylon in Mitte

Author Volker Kutscher was in town to give a reading from Lunapark, the sixth novel in his ‘Gereon Rath’ historical crime fiction series, which is set in Weimar and National Socialist Berlin. It took place in a wonderful old cinema called Kino Babylon, which opened in 1929 – the same year the series starts. In another nice twist, Babylon Berlin is the title of the first ‘Rath’ novel translated into English – by Niall Sellar for Sandstone Press – and the name of the high-budget Sky/ARD TV adaptation currently in production, directed by the wonderful Tom Tykwer (due to air later this year).

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The format of these kinds of literary events is a bit different in Germany. Volker read out three substantial extracts, each of which highlighted a specific aspect of the novel (the rising persecution of Jewish-German citizens in Nazi Germany; working life in the Berlin police; growing political tensions in Rath’s own family). Together, these showcased Kutscher’s writing talents and gave the 300-strong audience a tantalising glimpse of where Rath’s story is heading. There was also some interesting discussion:

  • Kutscher revealed that he plans to write nine novels in the ‘Rath’ series, ending in 1938, the year of the Reichskristallnacht pogrom (Night of Broken Glass), when it’s clear that Nazi persecution of the Jews is escalating and war is on the horizon. In addition, there’ll probably be a collection of stories to round the series off, giving ten books in total. His editor at Kiepenheuer&Witsch has different ideas; he’s going to try to persuade Kutscher to write more.
  • The character of Gereon Rath is purposefully flawed. The author doesn’t want him to be viewed as a hero – the emphasis is on how he navigates his way through the very difficult political times in which the series is set.
  • Kutscher’s Berlin is inspired by Erich Kästner’s Emil und die Detektive [Emil and the Detectives, 1929], and by American gangster stories and films. He uses old films and photos of everyday life in Berlin to get the detail right, especially when buildings no longer exist, such as the Alexanderplatz Police Headquarters (now the hideous Alexa shopping centre).

I had a bit of a chat with Volker after the event… Watch this space for some very exciting news….!

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The big Dussmann bookshop in the centre of town has a section dedicated to Berlin Krimis

Another lovely stop was coffee with Katy Derbyshire to talk all things translation. Katy’s the translator of one of my favourite German crime novels – Simon Urban’s Plan Dand posts fascinating notes about the process of translating on her blog, love german books. You can read her post on Plan D here, which also gives an insight into the crucial role translators can play in getting European novels published in the UK.

Then it was off to the Miss Marple crime bookshop in Charlottenburg, where I picked up the first in the ‘Markus Cheng’ private investigator series by Austrian author Heinrich Steinfest (Piper, 2007 [2000]). I’ve been keen to get hold of this one since it was covered by Marieke Krajenbrink in our Crime Fiction in German volume. It’s not yet available in translation, but looks like a lot of fun – the setting is Vienna and the narrative has a nicely sardonic tone.

Miss Marple is one of at least three independent crime bookshops in Berlin – two others are Hammett and totsicher (dead certain). They seem to keep afloat quite nicely, probably because a German version of the net pricing agreement is still in place, which prevents them being undercut by bigger bookshops and supermarkets. That Germany is a nation of crime lovers was evident from the steady stream of customers during my visit, although there’s clearly a threat from big online retailers, as shown by the paper bag in which my book was wrapped.

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Rough translation of the slogan on the bag: You don’t need to trek to the Amazon when there are books right on your doorstep

This time we also made it out to the Glienicke Brücke, which marked the Cold War border between Potsdam (in East Germany) and West Berlin from 1949 to 1989. The bridge hosted three major spy swaps, which earned it the nickname The Bridge of Spies. The latter is of course also the title of the 2015 Steven Spielberg film starring Tom Hanks, which depicted the Abel/Powers exchange of 1962. I’d been very keen to visit for a while, and being there certainly lived up to expectations. You can very much feel the weight of history, and standing at the centre of the bridge, on the line between east and west, felt very strange indeed. It also happens to be an exceptionally beautiful spot, with views out over two large and very lovely lakes.

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Clockwise from left: detail from bridge railing; bridge from eastern lower side; view over the lake standing by the bridge on western side; centre of the bridge, marked by a metal line saying ‘German division until 1989’.

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Giant GDR symbol used as a film prop in Spielberg’s The Bridge of Spies. Now in the Villa Schöningen exhibition about the bridge (on the eastern side)

You can read more about the Glienicke Bridge and its spy swaps over at history.com.

To finish off, here’s a selection of the food we hoovered up while in Berlin. Return trip to be scheduled soon.

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From top left: German herring salad; Franzbroetchen; (divine) roll with cheese; giant portion of cheesecake; Vietnamese won ton; Apfelstrudel with whipped cream; Turkish selection of starters with Efes beer, Vietnamese beef dish with aniseed broth; Berliner Bier

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23 thoughts on “Babylon Berlin, Miss Marple, and The Bridge of Spies

  1. By coincidence I just finished reading the first book of the Gereon Rath series, which I enjoyed very much. I am not a big fan of series, but in this case I intend to read also the following one’s.

    • Good to hear! I’m looking forward to seeing how the other novels in the series build on the first. Judging by the turnout for the reading in Berlin, the series has a devoted and very engaged following.

  2. Sounds like a brilliant trip – not that I need much convincing to go to Berlin, I love that city (nowadays)! And what a lovely series of events and meetings and books…

    • It’s interesting that two of the three crime bookshops I know in Berlin are named for British/US characters or authors – an indication of how influential and beloved English-language crime is there. But they’re all wonderful, and it’s simply blissful to be in a bookshop dedicated from top to bottom to the crime genre.

      See countrycrime’s comment below for a British crime bookshop recommendation. I must do some scouting around to see if there are any more. Goldsboro Books? They specialise in signed first editions, but also have a big focus on crime, and were the official bookseller at CrimeFest for a bit: https://www.goldsborobooks.com/

  3. Pingback: Babylon Berlin, Miss Marple, and The Bridge of Spies | picardykatt's Blog

  4. Morning Mrs P. If I’d happened to have found my way into only one of three crime only bookshops, I think I would have died and gone to heaven. I would’ve unrolled my sleeping bag in one corner of the Miss Marple bookshop, and be prepared for a marathon read!
    I haven’t read any of the Gereon Rath series, but they sound really interesting having been written about a difficult time in Germany.
    Berlin sounds a fascinating place, and the photo’s are lovely even on a cold winter’s day. And don’t get me started on all that delicious food…..the cheesecake looks particularly inviting 😉.

    • It does feel like a little slice of heaven being in one of those Krimi bookshops. For info, Miss Marple and Hammett also have an English-language section (mainly for Germans who prefer to read in the original English), which makes them perfect pit-stops for Brits stranded without crime abroad. Dussmann, the big bookshop right in the centre of the city, has an English section too.

      So far, I’ve only read the first in the ‘Rath’ series, and am really looking forward to seeing how the series builds. I’ve just found out that the second novel is due out in May, and is called The Silent Death. Details here: http://sandstonepress.com/books/the-silent-death

      Oh, that cheesecake! It was a huge slab and took about three days to digest!

  5. Well, the books are interesting, but I’m drawn to the food. I assume it’s all calorie-free, especially the cheesecake and apple strudel with whipped cream!
    Glad you had a great time seeing Berlin and experiencing its bookstores and treats.

  6. Pleased to hear of your visit to Krimi paradise, with a side of good food and drink! The Gereon Rath novels are interesting, the first one has so much detail about Berlin in the 20s–it’s immersive and dense with sense of place. I haven’t read any of the Cheng books but I understand the protagonist Cheng is a noteworthy variation on the typical detective, and the novels address some of the issues of national identity that seem so prevalent today. Plan D is also on my list to read. Finally, I’d like to mention a book I’ve been reading–Schundroman (Pulp Novel) by Bodo Kirchoff, a Krimi that takes place in part on the fringes of the Frankfurt Book Fair and shows a devious sense of humor and a lyrical writing style. Much more to it than a formulaic crime novel.

    • Thanks for the recommendation, Robie. I very much like the sound of the Frankfurt Book Fair as a setting – will try to get hold of a copy.

      I’m looking forward to getting stuck into Cheng as well, although the Petrona Award reading is having to take top priority at the moment… (not a complaint; I’m awash in fab Scandi crime fiction).

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