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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Southern Comfort

Martha Grimes:  Emma Graham Mysteries

  • Hotel Paradise (German: Das Hotel am See), 1996
  • Cold Flat Junction (German: Still ruht der See), 2001
  • Belle Ruin (German: Die Ruine am See), 2005

While these three novels are closely connected – each volume picks up right where the previous one left off – they can also be read on their own. Loosely related to the trilogy is

  • The End of the Pier (German: Was am See geschah), 1996

which is also set around Spirit Lake and features Emma´s grown-up friends Maud Chadwick and Sheriff Sam DeGheyn.

Hotel Paradise

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12-year-old Emma lives – and has to work part-time as a table waitress – at her family´s rundown hotel in a lakeside resort that has seen better days as well. Without any peers in her vicinity, Emma becomes fascinated by the story of another isolated 12-year-old from the past: Mary-Evelyn Deverau, found drowned in Spirit Lake 40 years ago. Apparently, Mary-Evelyn, who couldn´t swim, rowed out on the lake in the middle of the night wearing a party dress and fell off the boat.

Emma finds this (understandably)  strange and begins to investigate, using every spare minute to roam around and ask anyone who might possibly remember anything about the girl, her family, and her death. Then, another murder occurs, right in the very present, and the victim – Fern Queen – turns out to be related to the Deverau family…

Cold Flat Junction

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Emma continues to investigate the story of the Deverau family, which contains yet another murder in the past. Rose Deverau – the youngest of the four sisters Mary-Evelyn lived with – had married Ben Queen against her spinster sisters´ will. Their daughter, Fern, was just recently found murdered. And twenty years ago, Rose had been viciously stabbed to death. Public opinion suspects Ben Queen, who had never denied being his wife´s killer and whose return from prison coincides with his daughter´s death. But Emma – who has actually met Ben – has her doubts. By now firmly convinced that Mary-Evelyn has been murdered, her investigation into Rose´s death also leads her to a deeper understanding why the little girl had to die.

 Belle Ruin

n146946Emma becomes fascinated by yet another mystery of the past. This time, it´s a baby that was stolen twenty years ago from a hotel room while the parents were attending a ball in the same building. The child was never heard of again; investigation seems to have been closed quickly and things were hushed up, due to the wealth and influence of the family – who  turns out to be connected to the Deveraus once again.

 

These are not straightforward mystery novels. The reader has to puzzle the story of the Deverau family together just as Emma does, and even after three volumes, much remains unsaid.

The considerable charm of these novels is in the Southern Gothic setting and shrewd characters.

Emma roams the small and sleepy towns around the former lakeside resort that seem strangely depopulated. Most residents are elderly adults – the few children that Emma encounters are distant and even a little eerie. There´s the diner in which the same people sit on the same chairs every day, with so little variation that even a passing 12-year-old becomes exciting news.  There are houses, hidden in the woods, that  have been abandoned for years, but remain fully furnished – as if their occupants had just gone out (or vanished) minutes ago. Vanishing, or fading away, is a recurring motif that comes up again and again; as personified by the mysterious, ghost-like girl Emma keeps seeing again and again who eerily looks like one of the murder victims in her youth.  

Another recurring motif is isolation. Emma herself is isolated by having no friends her own age around; she does not belong to the few children that appear in the novel and is not yet an adult, either. In fact, when, in the second book, her mother goes on a holiday trip with the hotel manager and her daughter and even Emma´s brother Will has been asked to come, though he declines, while Emma is left back, she hardly even seems to belong to her own family. And Emma is just one of the many characters in these stories that are alone even when surrounded by others.

The characters are a delight to encounter (at least within the pages of a book). There´s Emma´s shrewd great-aunt Aurora, who lives in one of the upper floors of the hotel, surrounded by mementoes of her past like a cocktail-slurping Miss Haversham. There´s the Sheriff and Maud, best friends constantly bickering. The speech-impaired brothers, Ulub and Ubub. Faulkner-quoting master mechanic and poacher, Dwayne and spoilt teenage brat Ree-Jane.

The Emma Graham series has a lot in common with Harper Lee´s “To Kill A Mockingbird” without being quite as political. The novels also remind me of the flashback parts of “Now and then” (movie), “Divine secrets of the Ya-Ya sisterhood” (novel and movie adaptation) with a little “Stand by me” (movie, after a short story by Stephen King) thrown into the mix, as it´s Emma´s last summer before becoming a teenager, growing up, and her experiences and encounters make her realize a lot about life, human nature, and her own personality.

 And this is some of what Martha Grimes had to say about her Emma Graham series:

“The novels evolved out of my wanting to write a “trilogy,” the first being THE END OF THE PIER. This story actually happens some time after the other two, although it was written first. Given the content of THE END OF THE PIER it couldn’t have happened before Emma’s story or she certainly would have made much of it. When I finished HOTEL PARADISE I knew that although the story didn’t have to be “tied up” — given that none of these three books is a mystery — still there were questions I, myself, wanted to answer, so that’s how COLD FLAT JUNCTION came about. Now, I guess there’ll be another one because there are still questions that nag me. Who is this Girl that Emma keeps seeing? … It’s not Emma’s curiosity that keeps her on this case. It’s her unconscious knowledge that if this awful death could happen to Mary-Evelyn Devereau, it could happen to her, too. She’s also 12; she also lives with people who appear to be indifferent to her. Emma is scared, although that might come off as her “nebbiness.” (I love that word.) … many of the characters are based on real people and were just as I’ve described them. … Yes, there was even a Miss Bertha.”

http://www.bookreporter.com/authors/au-grimes-martha.asp