The Murderer In Ruins, by Cay Rademacher (translated by Peter Millar), is a fictionalised account of a series of murders that were perpetrated in Hamburg during the freezing winter of 1946/47.
Following the devastation wreaked by the Second World War large swathes of the city were reduced to rubble. Utilities and infrastructure were on the brink of collapse and the cold, hungry residents struggled to survive on subsistence rations. Within this bleak landscape a murderer is at large who strangles and strips his victims, leaving their naked bodies in the ruins of the bombed out city. Nobody knows who these people are or why they were selected. The frozen corpses yield few clues.
Frank Stave, is the police officer assigned to investigate the murders. He is required to work with two assistants: Lothar Maschke from the vice squad, who volunteered to join the team; and James MacDonald, a lieutenant in the British army, who was seconded by the Allied Administration as liaison officer. With memories of their active roles in the recent conflict still so raw it is difficult for Frank to know who he can trust to investigate these current crimes within the fair remit of the law.
The prose is precise and, in many ways, as cold as the landscape in which the story is set, yet the humanity behind Frank’s thorough investigations burns through. This is a man struggling with personal tragedy in a city where every survivor harbours torrid memories. The vivid portrayal of the horror that comes after the devastation of war is uncompromising.
Frank is offered every assistance by his superiors but the challenging conditions and few clues leave him little to work with. What he does uncover is a hidden war crime, a national secret, and a moral dilemma. Sides must be chosen where the nebulous concepts of right and wrong have become blurred.
Brought to life within these pages are ordinary Germans. I couldn’t help but consider the parallels between the reasons why Hitler came to power and current attitudes in this country towards those who the media portrays as a threat to the comforts of the British people. If only we could resist the urge to follow self-indulgent leaders and learn from history.
The denouement tidies up the many threads unraveled by this tale. The thaw in the weather feels as much of a relief to the reader as the conclusion of Frank’s varied investigations.
A fine work of crime fiction that is unusual in its detailed, historic setting and Germanic tones. Well worth reading for the telling of the tale, and provides plenty on which to reflect.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Arcadia Books.