Germany, Austria and Switzerland are big markets for crime fiction, and they write a lot of it too — but like their northern neighbors they seem to lean towards police procedurals, and most of the private detective sub-genre is translated from English. Even the best-known German private eye, Bernie Gunther, was created by the Scottish author Philip Kerr.
I asked the owner of my local Krimi bookstore about this, and he said “well, we don’t have a lot of private investigators working on major crimes like you do in the US. Here the police do it all. So those stories wouldn’t be as believable if they were set in Germany.”
To be honest, I think the US might disappoint him in that regard. There are many areas in which private operators supplement the police — background checks, surveillance, tracking down deadbeat dads and bail jumpers and maybe the occasional runaway teen — but I can’t remember ever reading about one who played a major role in solving a murder or kidnapping or far-ranging conspiracy, as they do in so many thousands of books. I suspect that the Chandleresque private eye, like the lone Western gunslinger, is far more myth than reality.
Anyway, he had only two recommendations for good private eye characters written in German, and I’ve now read a couple books in each series. The first is Gerhard Selb, whose last name means “self” and is translated that way in the English editions. Selb is a semi-retired bachelor in his late 60s in Mannheim, who’s mopey and somber about the past — particularly his own past as a Nazi prosecutor — but a charming curmudgeon when it comes to the present. He’s a gentleman who listens to classical music, enjoys fine dining, and counts CEOs, surgeons and chess champions among his friends. His cases are complex and highly entangled with postwar German politics and history.
Unsurprisingly for a character who is basically a lawyer’s retirement fantasy, Selb was created in 1987 by two lawyers: Bernard Schlink and Walter Popp. Schlink has since become much better known for his international bestseller The Reader, which was filmed with Kate Winslet, and as with the narrator of that story, there seems to be a good deal of Schlink himself in Selb’s ruminations.
The second private eye is Kemal Kayankaya, a younger man in Frankfurt. Ethnically Turkish, he was orphaned as a child and adopted and raised by native German parents. As a result, he doesn’t speak any Turkish and isn’t accepted by the Turkish immigrant community, but still encounters constant discrimination from ethnic Germans:
So he’s the ultimate loner, the ultimate outsider among hard-boiled private eyes, forever caught between two solitudes, too Turkish to be accepted by German society, and not Turkish enough to be accepted by that community. As he moves through all strata of society in Frankfurt (“the ugliest town in Germany”), through sex shops, gambling dens, government offices and other unsavory centers of vice and greed, only stopping for an occasional drink or two, he’s beat up, harassed, threatened with arrest and torture, even as he peels away layer after layer of corruption and racism. [source]
Written by Jakob Arjouni, who died earlier this year, these books are much more in the Chandler mold. I found them more successful than the Selb books, not so much because of the direct parallels to Chandler, but because Arjouni understood that a good private eye character gets his edge from being an outsider, alienated from his own society — and making his detective ethnically Turkish but culturally German was his device for achieving that distance.
Selb, by contrast, is just not enough of an outsider. He’s got too many friends in high places, too many ponderous thoughts about the past, and, ultimately, too much to lose in his comfortable life. But if these books don’t quite work as traditional private eye novels, they’re still an interesting tour through German history.
A third one that I’m just getting started with is Simon Brenner, a somewhat reluctant and unwitting detective created by the Austrian writer Wolf Haas. Unlike Selb and Kayankaya, who narrate their books in the first person, the Brenner books have a third-person narrator who writes in a very colloquial, folksy, humorous style, and Brenner himself is kind of a comic sad-sack figure. I haven’t read enough of this series to have an opinion yet, but it’s extremely popular.
The photos in this post are from movie adaptations. The first of the Kayankaya books was filmed in 1992, and I can recommend that as a fun movie and a good place to start. A year earlier, one of the Selb books became a TV movie which I haven’t been able to track down. And there have been several recent higher-profile adaptations of the Brenner stories starring the comedian Josef Hader, which I plan to watch as I finish the books.
As always, if you’re interested in private eye characters, the place to start is the Thrilling Detective website, which I quoted above on Kayankaya; they also have good summaries and bibliographies for Brenner and Selb.