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.

The Hollywood Murders

George Baxt: The Marlene Dietrich Murder Case  (1993, dt.: Mordfall für Marlene Dietrich)

Hollywood in the early 1930s. At one of Marlene Dietrich´s lavish parties, a guest is poisoned: a Chinese astrologer and fortune teller, about to reveal a secret about “a great danger” connected with someone present. Police officer Herb Villon, who had come in the company of society reporter Hazel Dickson, immediately takes over the case – but he can´t keep curious Marlene and her friend, Anna Mae Wong, from meddling. The key to the murder lies in the victim´s past, which ties to her several suspects all of which were at Marlene´s party.

This was an entertaining read. Nothing too special, but a nice trip to Hollywood in its heyday, with a bit of humor and a great Marlene and Anna Mae. The story was conceived with a bit too much historic hindsight, however: Of course, the murder victim had to have been to Europe in her past, had to have met an ambitious young politician named Adolf Hitler there and had to have predicted a terrible future connected with him. This is then muddled with an international political conspiracy which involves Nazis, Russian bolshevists, an arms dealer, and more. The Second World War already overshadows the plot, as something planned at least 10 years before its actual outbreak, while other events of the 1920s and 1930s which would have been stronger on the contemporary minds, are hardly mentioned at all. It didn´t bother me too much until I read more books by the same author.

George Baxt: The Alfred Hitchcock Murder Case  (1986, dt.: Mordfall für Alfred Hitchcock)

Munich, 1925. Alfred Hitchcock, still an unknown British director, is directing  his first feature film, “The Pleasure Garden”, when two members of his crew are murdered and another has a nervous breakdown and is first institutionalized, then vanishes. The case is not solved.

“11 years later, in London, an old Munich acquaintance, ill and distraught, begs Hitchcock to read a spy thriller script. The script-deliverer is murdered on Hitchcock’s doorstep. The script itself features the abduction of Alma Hitchcock and police pursuit of Hitch (as a suspected murderer), while he searches for a master spy in order to clear himself and rescue his wife. Alma is kidnapped, Hitch is almost framed for murder and he hares off, chased by Scotland Yard, in pursuit of a double-agent.” (Publishers Weekly). 

It is a really nice idea to have Alfred Hitchcock as the protagonist of a story that could be one of his own movies – including the obligatory cool blonde woman and, of course, a MacGuffin, Hitchcock’s famous red-herring device. The book is more of a spy thriller than a straightforward murder mystery, though.

George Baxt: The Greta Garbo Murder Case  (1992, dt.: Mordfall für Greta Garbo)

Hollywood, 1941. Greta Garbo has just lost her studio contract and lets her neighbour Peter Lorre talk her into accepting the starring role in a lavish independent production on Joan of Arc. But something is decidedly odd about the whole venture, and the production has the attention of the FBI and the local police under Herb Villon, long before a body is found in an abandoned house that belongs to the millionaire producer…

This was the most recent book by Baxt that I read – and the weakest one, perhaps because I could not read the book on its own but always had the comparison to the other two in the back of my mind. The characterisation of Greta Garbo was just too similar to that of Marlene Dietrich (main difference being, Marlene loved cooking and Greta was melancholy), including the attitude that of course she can play along with the suspect to draw him out – after all, she played a spy once. Both books even have a German representative make a generous offer to the movie star to get her to come back to Germany and work for Hitler and the Reich. (Which, of course, both divas decline). The witty quotations, present in all Baxt´s books so far, felt somewhat contrived by now, as if he had had a “Famous Quotes” dictionary by his side when writing and just forced them in wherever he could. The actual murder happens rather late in the book and the focus is – again! – less on the investigation and the murder mystery aspect of the story (which is what I´d expect from a book with So-and-so Murder Case in its title) than on the conspiracy/spy story aspect. And even though with this book set in 1941, the underground Nazi conspirator element is perhaps fitting better than in the other two, GEEZ!  Mr.Baxt, are there no other solutions you can offer to your readers? Were there no other criminals in Hollywood´s heyday?

These novels are listed as part the “Jacob Singer mystery” series which is puzzling because none of them have even a supporting character of that name. In the two of them that are set in Hollywood, the cop in charge is Herb Villon.

Nevertheless, here´s an overview of Baxt´s Hollywood-related murder novels:

1. The Dorothy Parker Murder Case (1984)
2. The Alfred Hitchcock Murder Case (1986)
3. The Tallulah Bankhead Murder Case (1987)
4. The Talking Pictures Murder Case (1990)
5. The Greta Garbo Murder Case (1992)
6. The Noel Coward Murder Case (1992)
7. The Mae West Murder Case (1993)
8. The Marlene Dietrich Murder Case (1993)
9. The Bette Davis Murder Case (1994)
10. The Humphrey Bogart Murder Case (1995)
11. The William Powell and Myrna Loy Murder Case (1996)
12. The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Murder Case (1997)
13. The Clark Gable and Carole Lombard Murder Case (1997)

I´m reading the Dorothy Parker one next. If that has Nazi spies in it, too, I´m going to scream.

Hinterkaifeck

The 1922 murders of Hinterkaifeck are one of Germany´s most mysterious unsolved murder cases.

Hinterkaifeck was the name of a small farmstead outside Groebern, between the Bavarian towns of Ingolstadt and Schrobenhausen (approximately 70 km north of Munich). Here, farmer Andreas Gruber (63) lived with his wife Cäzilia (72) and their widowed daughter Viktoria Gabriel (35) – the official owner of the farm – and her two children Cäzilia (7) and Josef (2). 

The family was rather well-off and well-regarded, though not exactly well-liked. They are said to have kept mostly to themselves. Gruber in particular is described as a brutish, sullen loner. He is said to have beaten and mistreated his children, of whom only Viktoria survived.

His daughter Viktoria was a popular member of the church choir, known for her beautiful voice. It was common knowledge that Gruber had an incestuous relationship with his daughter (something which, while illegal, was not infrequent in rural areas at the time), and actively prevented her from marrying again. His wife apparently suffered from the knowledge, but did little to stop things. A schoolmate of young Cäzilia´s reported in 1984 that Cäzilia was reproached for falling asleep in school on the 31st and related that the night before, there had been a severe argument in the family and her grandmother had stormed out of the house wanting to kill herself. They had searched for her for hours. (Earlier, in 1951, the same witness had stated that it had been Viktoria who they had searched for).

Even though a neighboring farmer, Lorenz S., had officially admitted to being the father of little Josef, it was rumored that the boy was in fact the fruit of the incestuous relationship between his mother and grandfather. Schlittenbauer was not the only local lad who claimed to have been with Viktoria.

The murders

A few days prior to the crime, Andreas Gruber told neighbours about discovering footsteps in the snow leading from the edge of the forest to the farm; however, there were none leading back. He also talked about hearing footsteps in the attic and finding an unfamiliar newspaper on the farm. Furthermore, one of the two existing house keys went missing several days before the murders, but none of this was reported to the police.

Six months earlier, the previous maid had left the farm, claiming that it was haunted; the new maid, Maria Baumgartner, arrived on the farm on 31 March 1922, only a few hours before her death.

Some weeks before the fatal night, Viktoria had withdrawn all her money from her bank account and borrowed some from her half-sister (Gruber was Cäzilia´s second husband), to invest in the farm. A donation of 700 goldmark was left in the confessional of the church. The priest traced it to Viktoria, and she told him it was “for missionary work”.

Exactly what happened on that Friday evening cannot be said for certain.

It is believed that the older couple, as well as their daughter Viktoria and her daughter Cäzilia, were somehow all lured into the barn one by one where they were slaughtered brutally. The perpetrator(s) then went into the house where they killed two-year-old Josef who was sleeping in his cot in his mother’s bedroom, as well as the maid, Maria Baumgartner, in her bed-chamber.

On the following Tuesday, the 4th of April, some neighbours went to the farmstead because none of the inhabitants had been seen for several days, which was rather unusual. The postman had noticed that the mail from the previous Saturday was still where he had left it. Furthermore, young Cäzilia had not turned up for school on Monday, nor had she been there on Saturday. The family also had been absent from church on Sunday, which was unusual, given Viktoria´s position in the choir.

Inspector Georg Reingruber and his colleagues from the Munich Police Department made immense efforts investigating the killings. More than 100 suspects have been questioned through the years, but to no avail. The most recent questioning took place in 1986, but even that was fruitless.  In 2007 the students of the Polizeifachhochschule (Police Academy) in Fürstenfeldbruck got the task to investigate the case once more with modern techniques of criminal investigation. Their final report is kept secret. To this day, many hobby investigators continue to investigate the case.

The day after the discovery, on the 5th of April, court physician Dr. Johann Baptist Aumüller performed the autopsies in the barn. It was established that a pickaxe was the most likely murder weapon. The corpses were beheaded, and the skulls sent to Munich, where  clairvoyants examined them without result. The autopsy also showed that the younger Cäzilia had been alive for several hours after the assault. Lying in the straw, next to the bodies of her grandparents and her mother, she had torn her hair out in tufts. The skulls were never actually returned to the bodies and the entire family has been buried without heads. The traces of the skulls have been lost in history. They very likely were destroyed when the forensic department in Nuremberg burned down during WWII.

The motive

The police first suspected the motive to be robbery, and interrogated several inhabitants from the surrounding villages, as well as travelling craftsmen and vagrants. The robbery theory was, however, abandoned when a large amount of money was found in the house.  Only the paper money was gone, while considerable amounts of gold coins and valuables had been left.

It is believed that the perpetrator(s) remained at the farm for several days – someone had fed the cattle, and eaten food in the kitchen: the neighbours had also seen smoke from the chimney during the weekend – and anyone looking for money would have found it.  But why, if they were not looking for money, would the perpetrators stay there for so long and keep up the appearance that someone was alive?

Whoever did this obviously had some farmers knowledge, and also a farmers´ mind: They did not harm any of the animals, not even the dog (until the very last day) though it must have been a hazard.

The use of the pickaxe as the murder weapon also points towards this: The victims had been hit with precision and a lot of hatred, their heads had been split but their bodies had apparently not been hit. Whoever did this must have been familiar enough with using a pickaxe to do so without thinking.

Whoever did this also must have been known on the farm, as the Grubers´ dog – a Pomeranian, said to be a keen watchdog – was first heard inside the house, but and later seen tied up and healthy, barking like crazy outside the barn by a mechanic who came to the farm on Monday. The dog was found inside the barn, hurt and frightened, by the men who discovered the dead on Tuesday. So the killer was familiar enough to the dog to be able to handle it during the three days he stayed on the farm after the murders.

All of the corpses had been covered. Viktoria, her daughter and her parents had been placed on top of each other in the barn and covered with a door, which in turn was covered with some hay. The maid had been covered with her own bedcloth and little Josef was covered with one of Viktoria´s skirts. This points towards the fact that the killer(s) had some emotional connection to the victims. By covering them up, they tried to hide what they had done, so they did not have to face it.

At some point, the death of Karl Gabriel, Viktoria’s husband who had been reported killed in the French trenches in 1914, was called into question. His body had never been found and two people claimed to have encountered a German-speaking Russian officer after WWII,  who claimed to be “the Hinterkaifeck killer”. A former friend of Karl´s also claimed to have met him in the 1920s. These accounts have been proven wrong and the death of Karl Gabriel seems ascertained enough to discount this theory. Apart from that, Karl Gabriel had planned to leave Viktoria even before going to the war, in 1914. He might have faked his death to be free of her, although this would have been very difficult for a young farmers´ boy in 1914 to accomplish, but why would he return 7 years later and kill the whole family, including young Cäzilia, his own daughter?

From the position of the bodies and their condition, Viktoria was probably the first to die. She was strangled as well as slain, and she was still dressed, as was her mother, whereas Andreas Gruber and little Cäzilia were already in night garb. It is thought that Viktoria was the first to encounter her killer, probably let him in. Maybe an argument erupted (what went on in the barn couldn´t be heard from the living quarters so it wouldn´t have alarmed the others all at once), the first murder happened and led to a killing spree – out of resentment, but also to do away anyone who might know he was there?

Many of those who study this case consider little Josef the key to it all. Why kill him, too? Maybe because he knew and recognized the killer? At two years, he would have been able to say something like “uncle xxx was here”, even if he might not have understood everything else that went on.

When little Josef was born, Viktoria claimed for Lorenz S. to be the father. He denied it and reported Viktoria and her father to the police for incest. On Viktoria´s request, probably garnished with the hint of a chance to marry the wealthy widow, S. withdrew his report later and confirmed to be the father. He had to pay an alimony of several thousand marks to the Grubers, which Viktoria gave him. With this down payment, it was agreed that he was free of any responsibility and Andreas Gruber was made the child´s guardian. In fact, this kind of deal was illegal even then, and a recent TV documentary on the case revealed that apparentlyshortly before she was killed, Viktoria planned to sue Schlittenbauer for alimony payments. 

According to one source, Andreas Gruber was said to have been waiting for an important letter, though we do not know what that letter was supposed to contain, nor who it was from, or even if this was indeed the case. If the killer was waiting for a letter to arrive (and, presumably, destroy) it would at least explain why he stayed on the farm for days after the murder. But if the letter was in connection with Viktoria´s alimony suit, wouldn´t the lawyer have come forth? After all, the murders made the headlines all over the country.

Lorenz S. had remarried at that point. His first child with his new wife had died and been buried only a few days before the murder. Did the notion of having to pay for a child that he couldn´t be sure was his while his own child had not lived trigger something terrible…?

S. was obviously familiar with the Grubers´ farmstead. He was one of the men who went to investigate after the family had not been seen for days and discovered the corpses in the barn.  He had apparently no problem handling them, pulling those lying on top of each other apart. The other two told him not to disturb anything but he said he had to make sure where “his boy” was. 

According to one of the other two men, S. “disturbed everything there was to disturb” and displayed a surprising familiarity with the farm: He went into the house from the barn (both buildings were interconnected) and unlocked the front door from the inside. (Was the key in the lock or was he in possession of the key that had been missed days before?)  He knew that the door to the maid´s room had to be opened in an unusal way, by lifting the handle instead of pressing it down. But if he had been the perpetrator, he would have spent the previous days on the farm and would have had enough time to cover his tracks. He would have had no need to mess with the crime site.

S. stayed on the farm until the police arrived, feeding the cattle. He even had a meal there himself. Just like the unknown perpetrator, he was apparently not disturbed by the presence of the corpses. Even though people were a bit more familiar with death and dead people back then, the other two men were  rather shaky seeing the slain victims.  On the other hand, he might have acted “on auto-pilot” in a state of emergency/shock, like someone who is witness to a severe accident and calmly does everything that needs to be done, shock not setting in until much later.

In spite of his apparent worry about “his boy”, he does not seem to have minded the decease of the family a lot: Years later, he said during an interrogation that the Lord had his hand in the right place when this happened, these were bad people. He did not exclude the two children.

The dog behaved in an unusual way towards S. when they found the corpses. He stayed in his vicinity and barked at him. S. claimed this was because he had gotten blood from the corpses on his shoes.

S. had no alibi for the night of the murders. According to his family, he spent the night at their barn to watch out for burglars after having heard of Gruber´s findings. But  S. was suffering from asthma, so how likely is it for him to have slept in the barn? On the other hand, how likely is it for him to slay six people in a very short time?

S. lived only 350 metres away from Hinterkaifeck, so he could have easily gone over there  and back without his absence being noticed. And years later, when the murders were discussed in the local pub, S. repeatedly talked in the first person when speculating about how the killer may have gone about and referred to him as “I”.

While some of S.´s behaviour makes him look suspicious, a lot of open questions remain. And S. is by no means the only suspect. To this day, a lot has been speculated  about, but no killer has been identified for certain, nothing has been proven.

And so the Hinterkaifeck murders leave us with many questions.

More

More information, pictures and documents:

www.hinterkaifeck.net, www.hinterkaifeck-mord.de (German)

Peter Leuschner wrote a book on the case which has had three (two revised) editions by now (1987, 2007, 2009).

Kurt Hieber made two TV documentaries (1991, 2009).

Movies:

Kaifeck Murder (Hinter Kaifeck), D 2009 > a mystery-horror movie based on the case

Tannoed, D 2009 > movie adaptation of the novel of the same name

Novels:

Andrea Maria Schenkel, The Murder Farm (dt.: Tannoed, 2007).   Transfers the case into the 1950s.

 

Published in: on November 23, 2009 at 7:09 pm  Comments (4)