Contains mild spoilers, mainly about things that happen right at the beginning of the novel.
If David Young has ever been accused of giving East Germany the benefit of the doubt, A Darker State provides a clear response. Markus, the only character in the novel to have their thoughts expressed in the first person, says, towards the end of the book,
What an awful, rotten country ours has become. Was there ever a dirtier, darker, more disgusting state, ruled by liars and criminals?
Markus says this with some justification. What was done to him is unspeakable and inhumane, and carries on a line of science explored by the Nazis. But Young isn’t making a partisan point: he explores the difference between a social liberalism encouraged by a regime for political purposes and the reality of a public conservatism riddled with homophobia. And the research is being bankrolled by a murky right-wing American organisation. There’s a huge moral bankruptcy, but it exists on all sides.
Meanwhile, the excellently-drawn Karin Müller is herself compromised. Karin believes that the DDR should be a power for good, but she accepts a double promotion and an apartment that she knows she doesn’t really deserve, only to attempt to investigate someone who is even better connected. But Karin is forced to explore where her own moral line is drawn. She is an excellent protagonist: principled without being priggish, strong yet pragmatic. We want her to succeed, both in her home life and in her police work. Incidentally, her devotion to her vocation is far stronger than to her state.
If you read my review of Stasi Wolf, you’ll know that I was concerned about whether or not its attraction lay in its portrayal of an ‘other’. David Young does a good job in capturing some of the complexities of East German life. But let’s not forget that this is a police procedural, so how does it fare?
Without revealing too much, I think it’s strong. Layer by layer, the murder is unveiled. This is no locked room mystery; there are plenty of red herrings and characters that flit in and out. There is a strong supporting cast to Müller: Jäger, the shadowy and ambiguous Stasi contact, Tilsner, the procedurally-reliable but perhaps ambiguous sidekick, Emil, the stroppy and somewhat ambiguous partner, all return but we have some new friends too, such as a politician from the West, who is, let’s say, ambiguous. There’s a little bit of split-timing, with a few six-months-previouslies, and that works really well for keeping the reader in suspense. It is quite filmic (it that’s the right word) in its approach with a chase that would make an excellent scene in a Bond movie, and has an excellent final twist and dramatic scene that rounds off the novel well, with a small coda that helps Young avoid any accusations of melodrama.
A Darker State is something that the DDR failed to be: an honest broker. It presents a situation that’s thought provoking and challenging, and it has something to say. But it never forgets that it has to be a gripping story well told. I’m looking forward greatly to the next instalment of the series.
Thanks to Zaffre Publishing for the review copy