A Darker State by David Young

Review published on February 8, 2018.

This is the third book in the Karin Muller series set in East Germany during the 1970s – the height of the Cold War. No state has ever managed to carry out the surveillance of its citizens on the comprehensive level achieved by the DDR (German Democratic Republic). Colleagues spied on each other and even members of the same family reported on their relatives to the Stasi. This overhangs everything that happened to the people of East Germany before the fall of the Wall. Young really understands this and it gives his novels an extra frisson. A Darker State is a really clever and believable thriller. Fans of both complex murder mysteries and historical spy stories will love this read.

I admit I took a while to warm to the first Karin Muller novel, Stasi Child, but I think this is a series that has matured very quickly into one to look out for. A Darker State is a fast-paced thriller that brims with excitement and a sense of danger for the characters which comes from working in an environment where finding the truth can be much more dangerous than burying your head in the sand. The criminals aren’t the only one with a vested interest in what is revealed during an investigation, there is always the Stasi looking over your shoulder. Young has taken an original angle by making his lead character a female police officer in the East German Kripo (police), which adds another layer of tension. Müller is the natural fictional descendent of Arkady Renko in Gorky Park but this story has more depth (because the fiction is so closely related to real events and truths exposed years later). The issues that come to light in Müller’s investigation were all really hot potatoes at the time but they also have very contemporary implications. At the heart of the novel is the nature of relationships between people: families, lovers and colleagues – betrayal. It’s about the amount of trust you can place in those around you. Much like the first two novels, the apparently ordered world of the DDR regime is punctured by the corrupt reality that lies beneath the surface.

Muller is inveigled back into full-time work after the birth of her twins by her boss, Oberst Reiniger. A promotion to Major (a jump of two ranks) and a new spacious flat concomitant with her elevated status all soften the deal but Muller smells a rat. She is suspicious of the Colonel’s motives. Reiniger wants Muller to head up a new national Serious Crimes Department to handle the murder cases that are currently taken over by the Stasi “Special Commissions” (State Security). The catch is that Müller will have to liaise with Oberst Jäger of the Stasi, a devious and untrustworthy man who has caused her near-fatal problems in her career in the past. Now it’s all smiles as Reiniger and Jäger rush Muller into agreeing to return.

Müller’s deputy, Captain Tilsner, also the recipient of a double promotion, is already at the site of a murder. Initially no one is sure why the Serious Crime Department have been called in. A murdered youth has been found in a lake, asphyxiated not drowned, an apparently ordinary crime. There is a tattoo on the body, the local police and the pathologist think it could be Cyrillic or π symbol, it’s actually the badge of BSG Stahl (recently demoted and disgraced football team on the border with Poland). Also, kriminaltechniker (CSI) Schmidt’s son Marcus has gone missing. When they identify the dead boy and the leads start producing results the Stasi move in to close the murder investigation down. So they concentrate on finding Schmidt’s son. Motorbikes, drugs, the Red Army Faction, enforced prostitution, state manipulation of sport and underground clubs are all part of story. Still there is something darker to be uncovered and as the pressure mounts Müller will need to know if Jäger will be a help or a hindrance?

I like the way Young manages to add layers of complexity to the plot without detracting from the smooth flow of the story. A Darker State really uncovers the nature of a totalitarian regime and it’s paranoia. The machinations of a security service unfettered by adherence to the law. The sense of what it must be like being a Kripo in this environment is brilliant.

A Darker State has a great cast of characters and there is a subtle interplay between them that hints at the complex relationships. An all too believable thriller and for the most part based on real history. Satisfyingly, with a really chilling and emotional denouement.

Paul Burke 4/4

A Darker State by David Young
Zaffre 9781785760709 pbk Feb 2018

Read Paul’s interview with David Young here.

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