German author Dirk Kurbjuweit’s first novel to be translated into English was Fear, based on his own experience of being stalked. His most recent book in translation (translated by Imogen Taylor) is a very different beast. Based on the shocking true story of Fritz Haarmann, the Butcher of Hannover, The Missing is more a thinly veiled true crime story than a novel.
Inspector Robert Lahnstein has been brought in to the Hanover police to help solve a string of disappearances of young boys. When his investigations begin there are already eleven boys missing without a trace and the number soon starts to grow. His investigation is stymied at every turn by his colleagues who at first seem just to be resentful of his presence but over time it appears there is more to their reticence to identify the killer. Even as a suspect firms up, roadblocks are put in his way and boys continue to disappear and Lahnstein finds himself unravelling.
This is very solidly based on a true story which is both a strength and weakness of the narrative. Kurbjuweit, also a journalist, cannot help but deliver some lengthy exposition dumps. And there are no surprises here, just a slow grind to a conviction. But even so, using the novel form, he manages to explore the crimes thematically. The question of homosexuality and its lawfulness is never far from the surface. As is the impact of the First World War on the attitudes and lives of ordinary citizens. And towards the end, particularly, a consideration of the use of torture and its place in a society that claims to be established under the rule of law.
Kurbjuweit also makes good use of the time and place in which these killings were occurring. Germany in 1923 was still very much suffering from its defeat in the First World War and the impact of the Treaty of Versailles. The Weimar Republic is shaky enough that a series of unsolved killings is all the excuse people need to yearn for the good old days of the Empire. And in the background is the rise of the Nazis, Hitler’s failed putsch, pro and anti-Communist forces and a violent nationalist strain.
Lahnstein is a flawed guide to a flawed system and a time when achieving justice was shaky at best. And when Kurbjuweit manages to get out from under the disturbing facts surrounding Haarmann and his crimes, The Missing becomes a fascinating exploration Germany and German society in the aftermath of the First World War.