One of my latest obsessions has been European genre novels, probably because there has been a recent influx of these books translated to English and published here in the U.S. Dozens of new-to-me books and authors are appearing on American bookshelves for the first time and I sheepishly admit I'm rather like a child in a candy store as I peruse the selection with a glazed look of unadulterated joy.
Andrea Maria Schenkel's novel, The Murder Farm - originally published in Germany in 2006 where it sold over 120,000 copies and is now being published in the U.S. by Quercus - was an obvious choice. Recipient of Germany's "Best National Crime Thriller Award" (2007) and Sweden's Martin-Beck Award for Best Detective Story translated into Swedish (2007), The Murder Farm is a fictionalized account of a real-life multiple murder of a family that took place on a rural farm in Austria in 1922. Schenkel uproots this horrifying crime from post-World War I Austria and places it instead in 1950's Bavaria in the bleak years following World War II.
Through austere multiple narratives the victims of the crime - the Danner family and their young housemaid - are discussed by those who lived in the small, economically depressed rural area. Community gossip about the reclusive Danner family increases with each interview-style chapter and it becomes apparent that the victims had plenty of reasons to stay hidden behind closed doors. Spousal abuse, illegitimate children, and even rumors of incest filter through the community.
Schenkel ascribes to the less-is-more theory throughout the short novel (208 pages) and it is quite effective. Sparse descriptions left purely to the characters themselves lend an unreliable tone to the narrative from start to finish. The similarities to Truman Capote's classic work In Cold Blood cannot be denied in terms of the fictionalized true crime genre and the rural setting, but here the two novels sharply diverge. Schenkle spends less effort on character motivation than Capote, seemingly content to accept that some evil cannot be explained. While she does ultimately provide resolution to the murders, she doesn't wrap it up neatly with a moral lesson and a ribbon.
Anthea Bell translated this novel from the German. Without reading the original German version it is difficult to comment on the quality of the translation with authority, but it has been my own experience that when a translated novel's original honors and commendations make the leap with the translation, it's a good bet that the translation is a good one. It's when a foreign book laden with awards reads like a second-rate, self-published, half-hearted, $.99 effort on Kindle that you start to suspect a bad translation (but more on that in a later post).
Overall, The Murder Farm is an excellent work of German genre fiction and well worth the read. If you've ever had the inclination to venture beyond American, Canadian, or British authors I'd recommend it. I'm pleased Quercus is making these translations available in the U.S. after the veritable avalanche of Scandinavian police procedurals over the past decade. Yes, other European countries produce very fine fiction, too. Sometimes we just need a reminder.
Title: The Murder Farm
Author: Andrea Maria Schlenkel
Date: June 3, 2014
Source: Publisher Copy