Cay Rademacher’s The Murderer in Ruins, the first in the ‘Inspector Frank Stave’ series, was shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger. Its sequel, The Wolf Children, is now out with Arcadia Books, and looks to be another exceptional historical crime novel, set in the bleak post-war Germany of 1947.
Cay has kindly answered some questions about the novels below, and there’s also an exclusive extract from The Wolf Children for Mrs. Peabody readers, courtesy of Arcadia Books.
Cay will be on the ‘German Noir’ panel I’m moderating at Newcastle Noir on Saturday 29 April, thanks to the support of the Goethe-Institut London. If you’re in the area, do come along! You can see the full Newcastle Noir programme here.
Author interview with Cay Rademacher
MP: Welcome, Cay. The Murderer in Ruins and The Wolf Children are both set in Hamburg in 1947, two years after the end of the Second World War. Why did you choose this particular location and year?
CR: I stumbled over it by chance – I did some research, as a journalist, for an article on daily life in post-war Germany. So this was the time: after 1945 and before 1949 (the Occupation years between the fall of National Socialism and the foundation of West and East Germany). And Hamburg was my home-town then, which I knew quite well.
Partly cleared bomb damage in 1947 Hamburg, photographed by Arabella Kurdi
MP: You very effectively depict life in a ruined post-war German city. How do you go about researching the detail of what it was like to experience that place and time?
CR: It’s a multi-layer approach –
- Talk to historical witnesses and survivors.
- Study documents from the period: police records, newspapers, letters, official documents, anything written.
- Visit the Hamburg Museum, the city’s history museum, which has lots of things on display.
- Historical research: interviews with historians and historical literature on the subject.
- Films and photographs (the visual aspect is very important).
- And, last but not least: visit all places personally. Though a lot of them have changed considerably, there are still many places to see. And even when a certain house or street has changed, there is still some kind of atmosphere there.
A Spiegel magazine cover from 1947, the year in which it was established with the support of the Allies. It’s still going strong 50 years later…
MP: Tell us a little about your investigator, Chief Inspector Frank Stave.
CR: There was a real ‘Oberinspektor Frank Stave’ in the Hamburg police, who signed a lot of documents in this period. But he is long gone and his biography is completely fictional. ‘My Stave’ was in the police even before Hitler came to power. He was never in the Nazi-party, but also never wanted to quit the service. So he feels guilty, in a way. His wife died during a night of bombing. His only son was an ardent follower of the regime and joined the Wehrmacht [the army] as a teenager in the last days of the war. He went missing fighting against the Red Army. So, working as a CID-man amidst the ruins of post-war Germany, Stave has to fight crime – and his inner demons too.
MP: Who are the ‘wolf children’, and why did you decide to make them central to the second Stave novel?
CR: Wolfskinder were, mostly, children who lost their entire families during their flight from Eastern territories around the end of the Second World War (roughly from the end of 1944 to the summer of 1946). These refugees were stranded in the cities, mostly in what would become West Germany. They formed gangs to survive. In Hamburg, which had about one million citizens at that time, there were about 10,000 to 12,000 wolf children in 1947. This, in itself, was for me reason enough to make them the tragic heroes of the novel.
The original German cover of The Wolf Children
MP: The Murderer in Ruins and The Wolf Children are part of a trilogy – the final part, Der Fälscher [The Forger], was published in Germany in 2013. Why did you decide to write a trilogy rather than a longer series?
CR: It’s a kind of circle. The Murderer in Ruins is set in the winter of 1947, which was, in a lot of ways, really Germany’s darkest hour (even more than 8 May 1945) – concerning poverty, desperation, shame, chaos. The third novel is set in the summer of 1948 – exactly during the weeks when the famous Deutsche Mark (German Mark) was introduced as new currency. This marked the beginning of the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) and the birth of West Germany. All of a sudden, optimism was everywhere (and the will to ‘forget’ the Nazi past). So these three novels were set in the transition period between two very different regimes, in a kind of historical no man’s land.
Extract from the opening of Cay Rademacher’s The Wolf Children, trans. by Peter Millar and reproduced with the kind permission of Arcadia Books, 2017 (pp.1-12).
Chapter 1. The Boy and the Bomb
Friday, 30th May 1947
The dead boy’s blood coated the five-hundred-pound British bomb like a red veil. Light coming through the shattered roof of the warehouse fell on the corpse and on the unexploded bomb, a thing the size of a man, like some monstrous fish that had buried itself in the concrete flooring. The rest of the warehouse was in darkness. It was as if the sunlight shining in on the boy and the bomb was some giant theatrical floodlight, Chief Inspector Frank Stave of Hamburg CID thought to himself.
Stave was in charge of a small team investigating the murder and had to prepare a report on the condition of the body and the presumed crime scene, take statements from witnesses, look for clues or traces of the killer. There was no question that the boy, aged about twelve, or fourteen at most, had suffered a violent death. But Stave was crouched down with a few other policemen behind the partially concealed steel frame of a broken crane, looking through a hole in the wall into the warehouse. There was just one man in the building, taking careful steps as he walked around the scrawny body of the boy and the fat bomb. He gave the corpse a brief glance before finally kneeling next to the bomb and gingerly setting down the big heavy leather bag he had been carrying in his right hand.
He was a bomb disposal expert, sent to defuse the thing. As long as the detonator was still active, it was far too dangerous for the investigation team to approach the body. I just hope he doesn’t remove any traces the killer might have left, Stave thought to himself.
The chief inspector had been alerted to the incident by a phone call just as he was starting his shift. He had gathered together a few uniformed police and set off from the CID headquarters on Karl Muck Platz. Most of them were young, wet behind the ears, appointed by the British occupation forces. Stave spotted among them Heinrich Ruge, a captain who had helped on previous enquiries.
‘The victim isn’t going to run off on us’, Ruge had called out to him rather too snappily.
Stave had said nothing, just gave a sympathetic look at the lad who had beads of perspiration leaking out from under his helmet and running down his temples. Even at the best of times the uniformed police called their tall, uncomfortable headgear ‘sweat boxes’. Today the temperature was nearly thirty degrees.
Stave thought back with a shiver to the previous winter, a merciless six months when the thermometer regularly showed between minus ten and minus twenty – sometimes even lower. And now this spring was as warm as anyone could remember. It was as if the weather was going as mad as humanity had done all too recently.
The war’s over, the chief inspector reassured himself. Ruge and another five uniforms were bent down next to him, shielded by the damaged crane, the sun right above their heads, no shade anywhere around them. He could smell their sweat evaporating. Was it just the heat? Or maybe it was fear that had them dripping with sweat?
A small, scraggy red-haired man whose freckled face was already glowing red from the sun crouched alongside them. Ansgar Kienle was a police photographer and at the moment, for lack of alternatives, Hamburg CID’s sole crime scene specialist.
Only one person seemed to be suffering worse from the sun than Kienle – Dr Alfred Czrisini, the pathologist, whose bald head was going bright red. Czrisini just happened to have a British colleague visiting when Stave called him, and was able to borrow his Jeep to drive to meet them at the crime scene. Despite his sunburn, Czrisini looked pale as his shaking hands held a Woodbine to his lips.
‘Do you think that’s a good idea when there’s a five-hundred-pound bomb being defused nearby?’ Stave hissed between his teeth, even though he knew that nobody and nothing, not even a bomb, would stand between Czrisini and his cigarettes. The doctor gave him a brief smile and shook his head, a little pale blue wisp of smoke rising from his mouth over the sea of ruins. Stave had brought his men across the Elbe in a launch to Steinwerder. Blohm & Voss shipyard lay at the hammer-shaped end of a peninsular on the southern side of the Elbe. There were two huge docks parallel to the river, and a third jutting diagonally into the shore like a giant sword. Behind the two big docks there was a third basin. All along the riverbank stood long brick warehouses, cranes lined up in rows like soldiers standing to attention, and the tangle of rails for the puffing narrow-gauge railways that brought boilers, gun barrels and steel bulkheads down to the docks. Or rather used to.
It was only a few years ago that the battleship Bismarck had been built here by Blohm & Voss. It was from here that nearly fifty per cent of the German U-boat fleet had first slid down the gangways into the sea. Stave could still see some fifteen almost finished hulls, tubes of grey steel, some sixty or seventy metres long, with the closed torpedo door flaps in their hulls, rudders, gleaming propellor screws, a few of them so new they could almost set off immediately to patrol the seas, others already half-submerged beneath the waters of the basin, like stranded whales. Two or three of the wrecks looked as if they had been beaten to death by some giant right here in the shipyard. The British and Americans had bombed Blohm & Voss again and again.
Stave looked at the mountains of rubble, stretching hundreds of metres in every direction: toppled chimneys lying on the two- to three-hundred metre docks, the walls of which had been blown in, heaps of molten metal produced in a matter of seconds in the ferocious heat. Bracken and sorrel bushes sprouted from the broken cobblestones. The old bulkheads with their shattered concrete now covered in verdigris. Beyond the last of the docks the Elbe flowed on, fast and grey. And beyond that again ruins upon ruins with only the tower of St Michael’s rising in the heat haze like some giant tombstone.
Only a few years ago, even in the CID headquarters, they could hear the sound of the jackhammers echoing across the Elbe like a low humming, as continuous and unremarkable as the gurgling sound of a waterfall: after a while you simply didn’t notice it any more.
Now it was almost totally silent. There were no ships in the docks, no sparks flying from welding machines or ice saws. The only noise came from a crane on rails at the far end of the dock, jerking and creaking as it pulled steel girders out of the ruins of a building and piled them on to a barge floating on the Elbe: material that could be melted down and recycled somewhere.
A fireman colleague of the specialist in the warehouse crawled over to the crouching police.
‘How much longer is he going to take?’ Stave asked him. He noticed that he was speaking softly, as if a word pronounced too loudly might set off the unexploded bomb.
The fireman spoke softly too, though: ‘Hard to say. Depends on what type of detonator it is, and what state it’s in. We’ve seen hundreds of bombs like that. Most of them have an ordinary detonator, one that should set the explosives off the minute it hits. Sometimes they get stuck, either because they hit a roof that was already damaged or because they were screwed in wrongly in the first place. Those we can deal with quickly enough. But some of these beasts have timed fuses set to go off hours or even days later.’
Stave nodded. He remembered how sometimes days after the horrific nights of the bombing raids, suddenly there would be an enormous boom and another building would collapse in ruins. The Americans and British had done it deliberately to make the job of clearing up the rubble more difficult – that was one of the reasons why the local Gauleiter Karl Kaufman had ordered prisoners from the Neugamme concentration camp into the ruins to do the clearing up. On two or three occasions he had been told to watch over them.
‘Those types of detonators,’ the fireman went on, ‘sometimes don’t work. When you look at them they can seem undamaged, but if you make the slightest mistake, even the tiniest vibration, the whole thing can explode in your face.’
‘Would human footsteps be vibration enough?’ the chief inspector asked him.
The fireman smiled. ‘Sometimes, yes. But not in this case. My colleague has clearly already tested that.’
‘Risk of the job, I suppose,’ Stave muttered.
‘We get extra rations cards for doing difficult work.’
‘Sounds fair enough.’ The CID man looked round and saw, about fifty metres away, a group of workers watching them morosely. Then he turned back to the figure crouching next to him.
‘How long is he going to stay there leaning over the bomb?’
The fireman nodded at the part of the roof that had caved in. ‘That’s where the bomb hit,’ he said. ‘We call that a “wall hit”, where the bomb hits the wall first, goes into a spin and eventually hits the ground at such an oblique angle that the detonator doesn’t go off properly. It’s complex. My colleague is going to be in there for an hour at least.’
‘Wait here,’ Stave ordered the uniformed policemen. They nodded, not exactly thrilled with the instruction. ‘Dr Czrisini, come with me. You too, Kienle. Won’t do any harm if we use the time to ask a few questions of the workers over there. They look like they’re bursting to help us.’
‘They look as if they think you’re more likely to explode on them than the bomb,’ replied the pathologist. He pulled himself to his feet – no easy task given his weight – grunting with the effort, and followed the two CID men.
Five men in dark reefer jackets over collarless blue-and-white striped shirts, corduroy trousers, peaked caps and with hands like shovels shot hostile looks at Stave and his companions as they approached. The chief inspector introduced himself, whipped out his police badge and handed round English cigarettes: John Player, a sailor wearing a life belt round his neck on the packet.
The men looked surprised, then hesitated, before finally grabbing them, with sounds that might even be interpreted as thanks. Stave, who was a non-smoker, had been carrying a few spare cigarettes on him for a while now. At one time he had traded them with returning prisoners-of-war down at the station for any possible information on his missing son. But ever since he had found out that Karl was in a Soviet camp in Vorkuta, he no longer needed to do that. Now he used the cigarettes to make interrogations go a bit more smoothly.
Czrisini put a Woodbine between his lips. The men stood there silently for a few minutes, blue wisps of smoke twisting in the air between the cracked brick walls, the smell of sweet oriental tobacco oddly comforting against the background aroma of bricks and lubricating oil. There was a heat haze in the air, and a stench of rubbish and dead fish rose from the Elbe. Stave could have done with a glass of water.
The oldest worker present – Stave put him at sixty or more – cleared his throat and took a step forwards.
He was as skinny and hard packed as a smoked sausage. Stave didn’t like to think how many times he must have heard jokes about his surname – ‘bacon’.
‘Was it you who called us?’
‘No, that was the site manager.’ He nodded towards a square redbrick building a few hundred metres away, which Stave guessed was the administration building.
‘We found the bomb,’ the man hesitated a moment before continuing, ‘and the dead boy, just after we came on shift. We ran over to the office.’
‘How long have you been working for Blohm & Voss?’
Speck gave him a surprised look. ‘Forever.’ He thought a moment and then added, “Forty-four years. If you can call the past few years “work”.’
His colleagues muttered in agreement. Even that sounded threatening.
‘You don’t exactly look as though it’s been a holiday.’
‘I’m part of the shit squad,’ the old man announced proudly.
Stave stared at him in surprise.
‘Kettelklopper,’ Speck said, as if in explanation. Then he realised that the chief inspector still didn’t get the message and repeated, in standard German rather than the thick Hamburg dialect: ‘Kettle knocker: we climb inside the kettles – the hulls of ships laid up in the docks for refit – and knock on the walls to dislodge any dirt.’
‘That sounds like hard work, harder than what you’re doing now.’
‘Work?’ Speck said. ‘Work is building ships or refitting them. Hammering, riveting. You start out with an empty dock and at the end a ship slides down the slipway into the Elbe. That’s what work is.’
‘And nowadays?’ The chief inspector knew what Speck was getting at, but he wanted to hear it from the man’s lips. It would make it easier for a man who wasn’t used to speaking much to answer his other questions.
‘Nowadays?’ The man was getting worked up. ‘Nowadays we’re dismantling the yard. The English want us to destroy our own workplace. Or what’s left of it after they bombed most of it to hell.’
It was true enough that the giant shipyard had been bombed to hell. Officially. Any machinery and tools had been sent off to other countries in reparation for the damage the Germans had done to them in the war. In Hamburg it was an open secret that the British wanted to close down once and for all what had been one of the best shipyards in the world. They wanted to eliminate a rival that had not just turned out warships and U-boats, but in peacetime had also built hundreds of ocean liners and freighters, orders that had more often than not been snatched from shipyards in Liverpool or Belfast.
Speck nodded towards a pile of machinery roasting in the sunshine some thirty metres away near one of the workshops: ‘Lathes, welding machines, riveting machines, milling machines,’ he said. ‘Nine months ago they made us dismantle all that stuff and leave it over there. It’s supposed to be delivered to the Soviet Union. They sent in English military police specially to keep an eye on us. And now it’s all lying there rusting away. Comrade Stalin isn’t interested in our machinery. The English just made us move it out there so it would fall apart.’
He had to be a communist, Stave reckoned. Since 1945, when the Brits allowed elections to take place again in Hamburg, one in every five shipyard workers had voted for the Communist Party of Germany. It wasn’t hard to understand, he told himself, but out loud he said, ‘You’ve been working here for two years, dismantling the shipyard, but nobody spotted an unexploded bomb lying around?”
Speck shook his head. ‘Up until 1945, U-boat spare parts were stored in here. Ever since it’s been lying empty. It was only by chance that we looked in this morning.’ He hesitated for a moment, glanced round as if he was worried somebody was eavesdropping, and added in a quieter voice: ‘All that machinery over there, we couldn’t just leave it lying there. We wanted to move it in here to…’ he was looking for the right word, ‘to keep it safe.’ And then added hastily, ‘Until the English come to take it away.’
‘Absolutely,’ Stave said in a sarcastic tone of voice. What the old man meant was they wanted to keep their tools safe until the day when they could get Blohm & Voss back up and running again. But what business was that of his? ‘And that’s when you came across the bomb with the dead body lying on it?’
‘We could hardly miss it,’ Speck said, his chapped hands shaking slightly. ‘We were shocked.’
‘How close did you get? Did you touch anything?’
They all shook their heads. ‘Touch an unexploded bomb? I’m not that tired of living yet,’ Speck said. ‘We’re forever coming across them. The bomb disposal people could set up shop here, the number of times we’ve had to call them in.’
‘So you didn’t go past the entrance?’ the chief inspector asked, glancing at the door lying open at the narrow end of the hangar, further away from the dead body than the hole in the wall they had been taking cover behind.
Speck nodded. ‘Maybe a couple of paces, then we turned tail.’
‘Did you recognise the boy?’
They all shook their heads again.
‘Could he have been an apprentice? An errand boy?’
‘No. We’re not allowed to train any more apprentices. What would we be training them for anyway? And we’ve no need for errand boys.’
Speck dithered for a moment, until Stave gave him an encouraging nod and handed over another cigarette. Then he said, ‘There are always lads running around here. Orphan kids. Refugees. Displaced persons, as they call them. Urchins with no homes and no parents to take them by the scruff of the neck. They steal anything they can get their hands on. You should know that, in the police.’
The chief inspector sighed. There were between ten and twelve thousand children living in the ruins of Hamburg. Kids of ten, twelve or fourteen years of age who had been the only ones in their families to survive the hail of bombs or the long trek west from homes they’d been expelled from. They stole coal from the freighters, pinched ration cards, worked as lookouts for black market traders or hung around the station selling themselves for sex in exchange for a couple of cigarettes and a bed for the night. Some of them had even gone so far as to kill.
‘When the bomb disposal man has done his job, this man here,’ Stave indicated Kienle, ‘will take photos of the dead body. Afterwards he will pass them around the shipyard, and you need to ask all your workmates to take a look. It might be that somebody will recognise him, might have caught him up to something, chased him off. I need to know who he is, where he lived – or at least where he hung out if he was homeless. What he was doing here, in an empty shipyard hangar with a five-hundred-pond English bomb lying in it.’
After dismissing the workers with a nod, Stave and his colleagues tiptoed back to their cover next to the crane, where the uniformed police were still sitting motionlessly, dripping with sweat and scarcely daring to breathe.
‘Why would the dead boy be lying on top of the bomb?’ he asked Czrisini.
The pathologist coughed, causing the policemen to start with fright, and shrugged his shoulders. ‘I’ll need to take a closer look at the lad – that is, providing the bomb disposal man does his job well enough.’
‘It looks as if the murderer deliberately deposited the body on a live bomb to make our investigation all the harder,’ Stave muttered.
‘Or wanted to send us a message,’ Kienle replied.
The chief inspector turned to him in surprise, and the photographer gave an embarrassed smile. ‘A dead boy lying on an English bomb – maybe the killer wanted to make a point? Tell us something? Or maybe it’s a signature of some sort?’
‘If that’s his signature, then I’d appreciate it if he used a typewriter next time,’ the chief inspector replied.
The bomb disposal man made a gesture towards his colleague who was taking cover alongside the police, then took from his pocket a longish object that looked like a steam hammer of some kind, reduced to the size of a man’s forearm, and set it on the far end of the bomb, between the stabiliser fins.
‘What’s he doing now?’ Stave asked, whispering unintentionally.
‘It’s got a timer fuse, housed at the end of the bomb,’ the disposal team man replied. ‘Shit things. The English dropped more than 100,000 bombs fitted with them, and one in seven didn’t go off. My grandchildren will still live in fear of the things; that’s if I live long enough to have grandchildren.’
He nodded in the direction of the odd piece of equipment his colleague had produced. ‘That’s what we call a “rocket clamp”, the only thing that enables you to deal with a timer fuse. In a normal fuse there’s a needle that strikes the charge and sets the whole thing off. But with a timer fuse the needle is held back by steel springs, like a bowstring. Between the needle and the charge there’s a little celluloid plate. When the bomb hits, the impact releases acetone from a little glass ampule. The chemical gradually eats away the celluloid and as soon as it does, the needle is released – and BOOM!’
‘The tricky bit about these things is that you can’t see in. It may be that the acetone was never released and the celluloid plate is still intact, or on the other hand it may equally well be that the plate is long gone and the needle could strike at any moment, but has just got stuck somehow. Then one cough might well be enough to set it off. On top of all that the way the detonators are fitted means you can’t just unscrew them. Try that and the answer’s the same: BOOM!”
‘Who on earth would think up something like that?’ Stave mumbled.
‘The same boffins who dreamed up the rocket clamp. It’s a sort of specialist spanner that means you can get at the detonator and unscrew it. A lot faster at any rate than a human being could. But most importantly, faster than the detonator can react. Any minute now my colleague is going to set off a tiny explosive charge within the clamp and that will yank the detonator out in one go. The centrifugal force within the rotating detonator will squeeze all the mechanical components together for a fraction of a second, meaning that the released needle will be delayed that tiny bit so that it can no longer detonate the bomb, because by then the detonator will already be out. Most of the time, anyway.’
The chief inspector was staring at him disbelievingly: ‘Sounds a bit like Russian Roulette to me.’
The bomb disposal man shrugged. ‘There’s always the possibility that the detonator got screwed in at an angle, in which case even a rocket clamp won’t get it out quickly enough. Then there’s always a chance that the explosive charge in the clamp doesn’t go off properly and it’s not fast enough. Nobody can be sure about that. When something like that happens, you can’t exactly ask the disposal man what happened afterwards. This is the one occupation where there’s no opportunity to learn from your colleagues’ mistakes or bad luck.’
The man in the hangar had by now carefully put the rocket clamp over the pointed tail of the bomb. He could be seen taking a deep breath. Then he made a brief movement, so fast the CID man barely noticed it. There was a short, sharp bang, like a gunshot. Involuntarily Stave caught his breath, dropped to the ground and put his hands over his ears.
Ever so slowly, he breathed out, noticing that he was shaking and that there was sweat running into his eyes.
‘Good,’ said the bomb disposal man next to him. He was already on his feet, stretching his legs. He waved through the hole in the wall to his colleague inside. ‘The detonator is out. The bomb is now just a big steel tube with a few chemicals inside. No longer a direct threat.’ He glanced at Czrisini. ‘But we’ll have to ask you not to smoke when you’re in there. It would be a pity if a spark were to drop through the detonator hole into the bomb.’
The pathologist looked bleakly into the hangar and seemed paler than ever under his suntan. Nonetheless he took long drags on his Woodbine until it was down to the tiniest of butts, and then carefully extinguished it.
Stave dusted himself down and said, ‘Let’s go and take a look at our corpse.’
The translation of this work was supported by a grant from the Goethe-Institut.