Fiction – paperback; Quercus; 181 pages; 2009. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell.
There were four things going for Andrea Maria Schenkel’s The Murder Farm even before I started reading it: it’s a crime novel; the author’s won several awards for it; it’s foreign; and it’s from Quercus, one of my favourite publishers.So, when I cracked it open earlier this afternoon, I expected to enjoy it. I just didn’t realise how much I would enjoy it.
Yes, this is one of those books that draws the reader in and takes you to an unfamiliar time and place. It’s so believable you can feel the story or its setting — in this case an isolated farm in Germany in the 1950s — on your skin.
But what’s most intriguing about this debut novel is its structure, a refreshing take on the crime genre in which the story is told via a series of “testimonies” conducted by an unnamed narrator. From these we learn that the Dankers — a husband, wife, adult daughter and two young grandchildren — have never been well liked, so when they are found slaughtered in their home, along with their new maid, there are plenty of likely motives for the crime. But even the village grapevine, which goes into overdrive, is filled with conflicting theories and stories, so it’s hard to distinguish fact from gossip.
Like the best crime fiction, Schenkel offers a steady drip feed of information, dotting little clues here and there to give the reader a reason to keep turning the pages in the hope to discover exactly what happened and who might have done it. The prose style is clinical and clipped throughout, but that only adds to the bleak atmosphere of the book, helped in part by beautiful descriptions of the weather:
There’s a milky white veil over the landscape. Mist, typical for this time of year. The first swathes of it are drifting over from the outskirts of the woods towards the meadow and the house. It’s late afternoon and the day will soon be coming to an end. Dusk is slowly gathering.
Such vivid scene-setting makes the story seem all the more chilling, as does the period in which the story is set. It might be ten years after the end of the Second World War but people are still closed off, still blind to the very things going on under their noses, because it’s easier to get on with your own life that way.
The Murder Farm is fiction but it’s highly reminscent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, so if you read that book and liked it, you’re sure to enjoy this one just as much. It’s a cracking read-in-one-sitting type of book, and one that marks Schenkel as a writer to watch.