Occasionally German books do get translated into English. Some of them even get popular enough to get a movie adaptation (of questionable quality), others are not quite as well-known but still good and sometimes I really don’t know why you would want those. Especially if there are so many other great books that sadly haven’t been translated.
Viktoria Schlederer – Des Teufels Maskerade (The Devil’s Masquerade)
Prague 1909. Baron Dejan Sirco, a retired army-captain, now works for the Bureau for Occult Occurences. He is helped by former street-boy Mirkko, prostitute Esther, and Earl Lysander Sutcliff…or rather his ghost who has been transformed into an otter (you read that right. It was an unfortunate magical accident). Together they hunt vampires, shape-shifters and other supernatural beings who threaten to disturb the peace in Prague.
One day Felix Trubic appears in the Bureau and asks for help. He is worried about a family curse: all the men in his family die once they’ve turned forty. As his own birthday is just round the corner he is unsurprisingly worried. Dejan doesn’t exactly jump euphorically at this case as he and Felix share a rather troubled past (they had a short affair. Then they tried to kill each other because honour) but eventually he gives in. However his initial distrust doesn’t seem to be completely unjustified as it does look like Felix is not telling everything he knows.
Part of my love for this book simply comes from the way Schlederer manages to bring the setting (Prague and Vienna in the last days of the Double-monarchy) back to life. It’s one of those books where the places are almost another main character because it is impossible to imagine it being set anywhere else.
The story is told through Dejan’s diary entries and letters written by him and the other characters and it is one of the few books where the author manages to imitate the old-fashioned language-style without sounding ridiculously over the top or slipping into modern expressions again. It also has a great story overall and brilliant characters. Especially Felix could have easily turned into a complete jerk that makes the reader wonder why Dejan still bothers with him but he walks that fine line between ‘acting like an idiot’ and ‘having genuinely good reasons for doing so’ (and also realizing when he messed up and apologizing afterwards).
Tommy Krappweis – Mara und Der Feuerbringer (Mara and the Fire-Bringer)
Mara is a 14 year old girl who gets quite a big surprise one day when she accompanies her mother to one of her Yoga-in-nature classes and suddenly a twig starts talking to her and tells her she is the last Spákona (a seer from Norse mythology) and that she needs to stop Loki from escaping from his prison and destroying the world. Something that is much easier said than done. She clearly needs help and finds it from professor Reinhold Weissinger who teaches Germanic Mythology at the Munich University. He obviously knows about mythology and can explain Mara the things she doesn’t know much quicker than she can google them (he also knows Middle High German which also comes in handy at times because if Mara accidentally calls upon Siegfried he does not magically understand Modern German).
In the first book of the trilogy Mara meets the still-imprisoned Loki who seems like a surprisingly nice Half-God. She soon begins to question if it’s really him behind all that world-destroying business, especially as she also runs into Loge, a fire-god/giant, originally invented by Richard Wagner, who repeatedly tries to kill her. She also does not have her powers under full control and accidentally lets a lindworm free in Munich.
In the second book Das Todesmal (The Death Mark) Mara still needs to stop Ragnarök from happening but gets sidetracked when Hel, the Goddess of death wants her to deliver a message and threatens to kill her if she fails. Because that’s not enough there’s also Ratatöskr, an evil squirrel who really wants her to fail. Mara is also rather surprised at how good her mother and professor Weissinger get along and wonders if she should worry about that or not.
In the final book Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods for those who aren’t into Wagner) things get quite serious as the title suggests. There are still evil squirrels and also a quite good-looking young warrior Mara accidentally brought along into this world from her trip to Valhalla. Like Siegfried, he only speaks Old High German which makes communication a bit difficult when the professor is not around. In the end Mara learns something important about her family (more specifically her mother) and the reader learns that Asgard has mobile-phone reception.
As my short summary suggests the books have quite a humorous touch. Both the professor and Loki (and Mara as well) snark a lot at/with each other (and at other characters) but that doesn’t mean it’s silly all the time. In fact there are some really great scenes: in the first book Mara is at school and gets taunted by one of her classmates who has been mean to her before. Due to a mix of not quite having her powers under control and also wanting to fight back Mara takes the girl with her into one of her visions – of a giant spider. The girl is of course terrified and collapses…and at that point Mara realises how wrong it was what she did. She calms her down and stays with her until the parents come to fetch her.
The book also manages to avoid the adults (and especially parents) are useless trope. In fact most of the help Mara gets comes from adults (of course Weissinger, then in the second book his ex-wife joins him and in the final book Mara’s mother also has a bigger role).
Robert Löhr – Das Erlkönig Manöver (The Erlkönig Manoeuvre)
(Der Erlkönig is a poem by Goethe about a fairy king who abducts and kills children)
Have you ever watched an episode of The A-Team and thought “I bet it would be cool if we had something like this with wild chases and explosions but set during Napoleon’s time? And with some famous authors as heroes!”?
Well neither did I but that must obviously have been the thoughts of the author because that’s exactly what it is: a literary A-Team consisting of Goethe and Schiller as well as
- Bettina Brentano, a poet and social reformer. (She used to be on the 10 DM banknotes)
- Achim von Arnim, a romantic writer and Bettina’s future husband
- Heinrich von Kleist, a dramatist and writer (one of his most famous works is Michael Kohlhaas which is loosely based on real events. It has recently been adapted as French-German co-production. Mads Mikkelsen plays Kohlhaas…cause who would be better to play a German folk-hero than a Danish guy who looks really good shirtless?)
(what? You are saying I just included this book because I wanted to use that gif? No Way!)
- Alexander von Humboldt, the odd one out, he was not a writer but a naturalist and explorer
They all work together to save the heir to the French throne (they have been told he is not dead but imprisoned somewhere) because they think that only with his help Napoleon can be defeated.
In the course of this Schiller and Goethe get into a bar-fight (actually mostly Goethe does, Schiller just protects him when he sees how unpopular his friend made himself with the locals), they blow a lot of stuff up, leave rooms more often through the window than the door, Schiller dresses up as a priest, more stuff gets blown up, Kleist wants to shoot everybody, Achim is jealous because he thinks Bettina spends to much time with Goethe, Kleist and Humboldt do spend a lot of time together and our heroes stumble through a lot of allusions to famous literary works (mostly written by them). Both they and the narration are more than happy to quote from the protagonist’s best-known works and they occasionally even get into situations that mirror events in their works (at one point they are asked to greet a hat, like in Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell). And stuff gets blown up. Oh I already mentioned this. It’s just that a lot of stuff gets blown up.
It is all just delightfully silly (though the end gets rather dark quite sudden) and perfect for lovers of German literature with a sense of humour (*insert joke about us and our lack of just that here*)
And no I have no idea what all that has to do with the Erlkönig-poem. The second book in the series is called The Hamlet Complot. I haven’t read it, yet but the reviews tell me that in that there is at least a performance of the play for one reason or another.
Friedrich Ani’s Tabor Süden Series
Tabor Süden works for the missing person’s department of the Munich police. His colleagues are Martin Heuer with whom he is friends since childhood and Sonja Feyerabend with whom he develops a slow romance.
What distinguishes the Süden novels from most other crime novels is that he, as already mentioned, doesn’t work for the homicide squad so it is really not always murder. In fact sometimes it is not even a crime (is it still a crime novel then? Good question)
Ani has occasionally been compared to Henning Mankell and while I see where it is coming from I can’t quite agree. It is true that both the Wallander and the Süden novels have a certain gloomy atmosphere but while after finishing a Wallander (especially the latter ones in the series) I often ended up feeling that what I’m supposed to take away from this was that basically everything sucks because there are not enough good people left to fight the evil. In the Süden books it’s more: there are good people and there are bad people. Sometimes the good guys “win”, sometimes what they do is not enough but this world isn’t all bad.
Another thing that differentiates Ani from many other authors in the genre is that he realized something actually rather basic: you do not need the worst tragedies or the most brutal crimes to grab the reader’s attention. As already mentioned not all novels even feature a crime and if they do they are neither particularly gory nor committed out of some outlandish motives. In fact the motives are usually quite boring: money, jealousy or plain convenience.
Süden and his colleagues also don’t have the Traumatic Past (with capitals) that so many other fictional detectives have. Their lives aren’t perfect but also not a series of tragedies. They have bad luck and problems the readers can probably easier relate to, than e.g. to those of Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley who had pretty much every tragedy known to men happen to him. Ani’s characters just discover that sometimes you don’t really recognize the people you’ve known since childhood anymore and you don’t really know how that happened or that even if you’ve always had a fairly good relationship with your parents it can still be complicated sometimes. And all that is enough to make a brilliant read.