The Dark Meadow by Andrea Maria Schenkel, translated by Anthea Bell- book review: Secrets and lies in a superior slice of German noir


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The Independent Culture

Andrea Maria Schenkel is the supreme exponent of German neo-realism, presenting her crime fiction as quasi-dossiers containing seemingly "evidenced" statements forming many-faceted narratives which place the reader in the position of judicial inquirer, bringing a involvement to the murder mystery unequalled except in Cluedo.

But if Cluedo and "murder weekend" fun represent the ultimate in cosy detective fiction, Schenkel is playing a darker game altogether. The Dark Meadow is set in an isolated German village in the 1940s where an unsolved murder occurred. The narrative lies within an onion-skin of later history, for it is researched nearly 20 years later after a yellowed newspaper cutting comes to light. As in her first work in this genre, The Murder Farm, the terrible background of recent Nazi history is omnipresent. In the individual acts of cruelty which follow Afra Zauner's return with a bastard child to her deeply religious but violent parental home, Schenkel examines the German conscience, as if searching for the psyche behind the Nazi monstrosities. Torture is still endemic, practised without question on ordinary prisoners by a civilian policeman. Self-righteous hypocrisy conceals lust and cruelty in the neighbours' disapproval of Afra's "fault".

A spectrum of testimony is presented to us in officialese, at times even extending the illusion to formal presentation in typescript. Yet this plain and functional linguistic, an instrument created by Schenkel and ably translated by Anthea Bell, also conveys the voices of the individuals caught in the official investigative net and allows us to penetrate the intense and horrific emotional reactions of the witnesses –including the murderer.

Schenkel is able to convincingly convey such varied voices as those of the country bumpkin and the forensic expert, and the basic, even elemental, nature of lives reduced to despair and penury by the disaster of war.

In Germany Schenkel has definite "literary" status, difficult for crime-writing to attain in this country, where the genre itself is subdivided into "noir" and "cosy". Those UK authors brave enough to try bridging the gap tend to suffer rejection by devotees of one branch or another. Minette Walters, best-selling author of traditional women's mysteries, introduced realistic touches such as newspaper reports and blurred photographs into her later fiction, but many of her more conventional fans resisted this courageous development. European criticism has developed more flexible literary attitudes, so that Schenkel can be considered as a deeply serious writer. Though her books are short, the impact they achieve undoubtedly merits this status.