Andrea Maria Schenkel: Tannoed

This book, based on the 1922 Hinterkaifeck murders I talked about earlier, has received many accolades. The German original was on the Spiegel bestseller list for a long time, has been praised here, there and everywhere and was made into a movie (English title: The Murder Farm). I´ll be upfront: I don´t see why.

“Tannoed” is very short – 120 pages in the German softcover edition. 24 of these are either blank spaces or contain a prayer litany quoted from a 1922 prayer book. That leaves 96 pages worth of text.

Two thirds of these consist of short statements from various locals people  about the murder victims, when they were last seen and the circumstances in which they were discovered. To piece together the events that led up to the murder in this way, from various perspectives that create a more complex picture in the reader´s eyes, is a legitimate writing technique. But I just recently re-read Dorothy Sayers´ “The Documents in the Case” where the same technique has been applied so much better. Where Sayers creates vivid characters whose statements give an individual insight both into their own personality and into the events they relate, most of Schenkel´s statements sound alike, exchangeable in tone. The people that are supposedly “quoted” are hardly characterized, they remain reduced to names and labels, and their opinions of the murder victims do not differ much from one another. The language, High German with a regional flavour, also feels contrived, but then if people who speak dialect in their everyday lives (as many country people do) try to speak High German, it usually has a contrived feel to it, so this is sort of acceptable.

Having read about Hinterkaifeck already, there was pretty little in these statements that was in any way new or surprising. About everyone of the people spoken to in the book has a real-life counterpart in a person that was actually interviewed by police in the Hinterkaifeck case, and the statements in the book differ little from the documented statements in the case. There´s the mechanic who came to the farm the day before the murders were discovered, the sister of the new maid who was killed along with the family, the men and boys involved in the discovery of the bodies, the parson, been there, done that, read that statement. Schenkel´s version of the case is set in the 1950s (but it might as well have been set in the 1980s), so the main difference between the original statements and hers is the odd reference to WW2 and the post-War years, which sometimes feels as if the author simply looked up main events of the times in Wikipedia and made sure to squeeze a mention of them in here or there. Schenkel was born in 1962, and it shows.

The structure of the book is jumbled (I do not call it “non-linear” on purpose).

It begins with an introduction by an un-named first person narrator who has grown up in Tannoed, then moved away, later returns after the murders have happened and is now supposedly the person conducting the interviews and gathering all the statements, or maybe isn´t:  We will never know, because this narrator is never heard of again afterwards. There is no “detective”, nor is there a framing plot outside of the actual murders.

We then get alternating “Lord have mercy on us” quotes from the prayer litany, statements from the villagers, and omniscient narrator passages narrated in present tense. Some of them accompany an unknown male going about his work on the farm (the murderer, who indeed must have stayed on the farm for days after the deed tending to the animals). Some of them accompany the murder victims in their last hours on the fatal night. And some of them accompany a vagrant named Mich who hides on the farm planning to rob it and becomes a witness to the murder. While these short vignettes seem to show a little more creative contribution by the author than the statements, if you are familiar with the Hinterkaifeck case, you will quickly realize that they, too, contain little that is not actually already provided by the case documents, embellished on a daytime court drama level.

In an interview in the annex of the book, the author says that she did read about Hinterkaifeck but then put that all aside and let her imagination roam – if that is so, it sure did not go very far. There is little to be found in Tannoed that is not available in more detail, and more important: more authentic, in the various Hinterkaifeck resources.

Peter Leuschner, the author of the two main non-fiction books on Hinterkaifeck, has in fact sued Schenkel for plagiarism. This is not at all surprising, since most parts of the book really give the impression to have been lifted from the available documents, shortened here and there, some names changed, some references to the 1950s forced in, but very little original work added.

It is more surprising, and saddening, that Leuschner lost his case, but I was told years ago by a lawyer that that´s simply the nature of legal cases connected with copyright issues. No matter how well documented your case may be, no matter how obvious it all seems, the outcome is never certain and depends completely on the judges. Sometimes I really do not have much confidence in our legal system.

Schenkel´s second book, Kalteis (Ice Cold), is also based on a true case:  This time, it´s Bavarian serial killer Johann Eichhorn, who was active in the 1930s, who provides the base for her Johann Kalteis. The case sounds interesting, but I plan to read up on the true Eichhorn and skip Schenkel´s version. This author, I´m afraid, is not my cup of tea.

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