One of the most intriguing elements of David Young’s Karin Müller/Stasi series is the sense that the writer enjoys mixing it all up. Young takes moments from the DDR’s inglorious past, blends it with some artistic license and adds elements of police procedural. Sometimes he has tackled big subjects such as courage, fear and trust, at other times the central plot has taken centre stage. As a result, despite a fairly regular cast of characters, this is a series that never feels formulaic, and you start each instalment genuinely curious as to what’s in store.
This time round, Young has reintroduced some of the characters that starred in Stasi Child. I went back to read Child, which was one of the series I’d previously missed out, and I do recommend that you read it first. The setting is again the northern edges of the Republic: the Baltic has frozen over during a terrible winter. It feels fitting that it is the elements that call into question the Stasi’s elaborate plans to counter Republikflucht: this most artificial of states up against natural hazards. Indeed, we get a (presumably accurate) account of the resources that were ploughed into keeping citizens imprisoned. That said, the fairly substantial part played in the plot by Stasi head Erich Mielke did feel at times overplayed.
Once again the themes of trust are right at the heart of the novel, which starts with Karin Müller being blackmailed into resuming her role at the head of the serious crimes department. To be honest, I’m not sure about how realistic this section is – has Müller really been sitting on her hands for months because one of her team was in the Hitler Youth? – but the situation is unnerving and makes the point immediately: no one really knows who holds power and as a result threats that are possibly empty are none the less taken seriously. Irma can’t know whether Karin really is her friend but then Irma has been crossing and double-crossing her own family for years: how she is able to trust anyone at all is beyond me.
There’s a big set piece action scene at the end (genuine heart-in-the-mouth stuff) but for me the highlight is the way in which Young gives us such an eerie atmosphere, contrasting so sharply with the location we got to know in Stasi Child.
There are two twists at the end, one of which I’m going to discuss now.
Despite everything, despite all she knows and all she’s seen, Karin Müller believes the DDR to be a force for good. I’ve found that to be a useful constant throughout this series, because without a sliver of optimism the series could too easily sink under its cynicism. But right at the end of the book, there’s a revelation: Müller’s ex-husband was not executed by the Stasi but was instead working as a Stasi agent in Austria. Stasi agent Jäger had shown Müller the place of her husband’s supposed execution, but now the Stasi were happy for Müller to read the letter from Irma stating that Gottfried was still alive. She interprets this as a measure of their control and their happiness in exerting their power over her, but it’s a tipping point. She thinks in her own mind of ‘the Wall’ rather than of the ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier’.
A theme we’ve seen in other literature about the DDR is how initially-enthusiastic citizens became disillusioned over time, once they realised that the state would never live up to their idealistic hopes. I like what Young has done here, though: over time, he shows us, the hamfistedness of the Stasi and other agents of power hammered doubt even into the most ardent believers. Eventually belief gave way under that constant hammering, but you never knew which individual chip would break through. It’s a useful reminder when thinking about allegiance to any particular cause. But of course that is only part of the equation. Not everyone who harbours doubts explores them further, nor still acts on them. I am extremely interested to see what Young does next with Müller and her dissidence.
Powerful, thought-provoking and heart-stopping at times, Stasi Winter is a Cold War thriller worthy of the name.
Thanks to Zaffre for the review copy.