Mystery / Mountain of shame
What could be better news than the arrival of a new misfit hero to the crime genre: the insecure, grumpy, underachieving German history lecturer Josef Maria Stachelmann?
A Paragon of Virtue,by Christian von Ditfurth (translated from the German by Helen Atkins) Toby Press, 331 pages, $24.95
In the world of mystery novels, serial murders are a dime a dozen -- and if the series in question includes fewer than 12 murders, as most do, one can imagine how devalued the market can become. Yet detective lit is booming, and few of us can resist the pleasures that come with shutting out the world and sinking ourselves whole into a decent crime novel. I would contend, however, that it's not the grizzly details of the killings, and certainly not the number they reach, that draw us in, as much as it is the neuroses and bad habits of the hero entrusted with solving the crime. From Philip Marlowe to Dave Robicheaux, Sherlock Holmes to Arkady Renko, we tend to like our detectives to be troubled - substance abusers, if possible - socially alienated, and generally misunderstood.
Thus, when I pondered why "A Paragon of Virtue," German writer Christian von Ditfurth's first novel to be translated into English, so hit the spot with me, I wasn't surprised to realize that I was only slightly interested in the obsessed Holocaust survivor who kills the wife and two young children of the upstanding Hamburg real estate developer of the title, and not so terribly concerned about the key mystery of the book - which, at least for readers, is not who done it, but why. The attraction of this book, rather, is the insecure, grumpy, underachieving history lecturer Josef Maria Stachelmann -- did I mention that he also suffers from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis? -- who almost in spite of himself becomes obsessed with solving the mystery. Stachelmann assists his police detective friend Oskar Winter in unraveling the bizarre murders, hoping to prevent Maximilian Holler's remaining child, and the tycoon himself, from meeting a similar fate.
Not that the plot and its resolution are not clever or fascinating. In fact, Ditfurth makes excellent use of his own training as a historian to get into the head of Stachelmann, an expert on the Third Reich, who in the book is teaching a university seminar on "National Socialism, 1933-39." Stachelmann's PhD thesis, on Buchenwald, marked him as a "rising star in the firmament" of German academia, but since landing a teaching position at the University of Hamburg, he has been treading water, unable to get it together to produce his "Habilitation," a major research paper that is a prerequisite for entering the tenure track. If he can't turn out his Habil in the next two years, he can look forward to dismissal from the university.
Meanwhile, Stachelmann is having trouble getting beyond the stage of collecting documents connected to his Habil topic. These he stores on a chair in his office in a steadily growing pile that he refers to as his "mountain of shame." In an endearing subplot, the incurably single Stachelmann, whose social comfort level largely limits him to spending evenings lying on the couch reading "Horatio Hornblower" novels, finds himself being pursued aggressively by a lovesick student, and more delicately by a lovely and charming junior departmental colleague. Stachelmann is unable to imagine why Anne Derling would be attracted to him, and when she appeals to him for help with her own academic research, Stachelman naturally suspects (as do we) that her romantic advances may be little more than a cover for a more utilitarian interest in sponging off his labors. Very slowly, however, the two begin to develop a sense of mutual affection and trust, and it's hard to resist a feeling of satisfaction at the quaintly chaste rate at which their physical relationship evolves.
Stachelmann becomes involved in the murder case after hearing details about it over a beer with his old university chum Ossi Winter. Something about the name of the victims' family rings a bell for him. Later, when Josef's elderly father reveals for the first time that he was a policeman and party member during the Nazi years, where he knew Maximilian Holler's father, who was "a big shot in the Hamburg Gestapo," he and Ossi begin to suspect a connection between the senior Holler's activities in the '30s and '40s, his subsequent success in acquiring a real-estate empire, and the current string of murders.
But for Stachelmann, the case offers more than an opportunity to apply his professional knowledge and skills to cracking a complex crime investigation. As a German, and as a son who is surprised and troubled at learning what his dad did in the war, he is always at least semi-conscious of the moral stain that hangs over his people. Rather than feeling morally superior to his father's generation, Stachelmann is always asking himself what he would have done if he had been in their place. No wonder he is tormented.
He takes the Holocaust very personally, even before his father's revelation, but he can also relate to the subject with the detachment of a teacher. When Simone Wagner, a star pupil, writes a seminar paper contending, with an excess of confidence, that the 1933 Reichstag fire was planned by the Nazis rather than exploited by them after the fact, he is forced to give her a less than top grade.
"You have written an excellent essay," he tells the uncomprehending and angry student. "If you'd said, 'All the indications are that the Nazis set fire to the Reichstag themselves,' then I would have given you a one plus ... But one mustn't present something as a proven fact if it can't be proved. That's the difference between scholarship and politics."
Later, Stachelmann and Anne are walking arm in arm, discussing the role of the police in the German killing machine during the Reich period, and he refers to a book he's read on the subject, apparently Christopher Browning's "Ordinary Men," about reserve police who did some of the dirtiest work in Poland.
"'I've read that book too,' said Anne. 'Sound scholarship and well written. Unlike Goldhagen.'
"'A lot of Goldhagen's book is second-hand,' said Stachelmann. 'It gives the German chattering classes a bit of excitement and plays on the guilt complex which is strongest in those who aren't guilty.' ... 'My father was in the police. I had no idea .... [D]amn it, who knows what I would have done in his shoes.'"
It's flattering to read and recognize, even without an accompanying explanation, indirect references to scholars like Browning and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, the author of "Hitler's Willing Executioners," about average Germans' complicity in the Holocaust. But it can also be exasperating to read, and try to pronounce, such sentences as the following, never having been to Lubeck, where Stachelmann resides: "He lived in a small apartment in Stietens Gang, a turning off Lichte Querstrasse, which linked Dankwartsgrube with Hartengrube. In that idyllic part of the old town between the Muhlenteich and the Stadttrave, he sometimes felt lonely." If you say so.
"A Paragon of Virtue" is the first in a German series featuring the schlubby Stachelmann, and Toby Press has plans to publish additional titles in English. In the meantime, this book will come out later this year in Hebrew translation, and it will be interesting to see how the local audience responds. For me, it was a pleasant surprise to encounter a thriller so thoughtful and funny - and even, occasionally, profound.
David B. Green is editor of Haaretz Books.
Haaretz Books, June 2009, (firstname.lastname@example.org)