In The Spotlight: Damien Seaman’s The Killing of Emma Gross

>In The Spotlight: K.C. Constantine's The Blank PageHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Many crime fiction authors (I’m sure you could name more than I could) have based some of their work on real-life events. Even if they don’t re-tell the event in all of its detail, they use it as an inspiration. And that makes sense since sometimes, real-life events are quite gripping. To give an example of how this works, let’s turn today’s spotlight on Damien Seaman’s The Killing of Emma Gross.

The novel is loosely based on the 1929 murder of a Düsseldorf prostitute named Emma Gross. At the time, Peter Kürten was arrested and charged for the killing. In fact, he confessed to it. He later recanted, and no direct evidence ever connected him to that crime. But he was guilty of, and confessed to, other sexual assaults and murders. In fact, one of his nicknames was ‘The Düsseldorf Vampire.’ He was executed in 1931, but the real murderer of Emma Gross was never found.

Using this as background, Seaman tells the story this way. Düsseldorf DI Thomas Klein thinks he has finally found evidence that links Peter Kürten to the ‘vampire’ killings (and no, I promise there are no vampires in this novel). Kürten is duly arrested and even shows the police where one of his child victims is buried. And he’s clear enough about almost all of the others that there is no doubt he is guilty. One thing this confession means is that Johann Stausberg, the man the police originally arrested for some of the crimes, may be innocent.

There is one murder among the group that’s now left unsolved: the killing of thirty-two-year-old prostitute Emma Gross. Some aspects of her murder are not consistent with Kürten’s account of it, and as time goes by, Klein becomes convinced that although he is a vicious killer, he didn’t commit this crime. One possibility is that Stausberg is guilty, but he has been committed to an asylum, and can’t give any coherent information. Now sure that Emma Gross was killed by someone else – a third person – Klein wants to find out who is guilty. He also wants to know why Kürten confessed if he is innocent. He gets the ‘green light’ from his boss Chief Inspector Ernst Gennat to look into the case and begins to ask questions.

Right from the beginning, Klein is up against obstacles. For one thing, Emma Gross was ‘just’ a prostitute. She had no family and no ‘respectable’ employer. So, very few people are really interested in what happened to her. For another, prostitution is illegal. This means that some people who did know her aren’t really eager to admit that they either were with or rented a room to her. And there’s the fact that many among the police, including Klein’s departmental nemesis DI Michael Ritter, are just as pleased to put her murder down to either Kürten or Stausberg under the assumption that one of them is lying. And then there’s the unknown man in a green felt hat and green scarf, who seems to be following Klein and many of the people he wants to interview. The man may be the killer; he may not. Either way he seems to be spelling trouble for Klein. In the end, though, Klein slowly traces the victim’s movements in the last days and weeks of her life, and finds out the truth about her death.

As I mentioned, this is loosely based on a real murder case. For readers who are interested in such facts as are available, Seaman has provided a timeline of the murder and of the Kürten case in an Afterword (at least in my edition of the novel). Seaman also makes clear which characters in the story (Gennat, for instance) existed and which ones are fictional.

Like the real events, this story is not a happy one. Klein does discover who killed Emma Gross and why, but no-one is really all the better for it. Readers who prefer light mysteries or mysteries where the ‘bad guy’ is led away in handcuffs and everything is all right again will notice this.

Consistent with the dark tone of the novel, very few of the characters are positive or optimistic. The story takes place at the start of the Great Depression, and many people are worrying about eking out a living. So there’s both pessimism and cynicism in their views. The murders have had devastating impacts on everyone, including the police, and that also takes its toll.

It’s also clear that none of the characters, even those ‘on the side of the angels’ are without serious flaws. Readers who like moral ambiguity in their crime fiction will appreciate this. Just as one example, Thomas Klein is a good cop in that he isn’t corrupt, he is skilled, and he is interested in finding out the truth about Emma Gross, even though she was hardly an ‘important’ victim. At the same time though, Klein is no ‘choir boy.’ He can sometimes get very rough when he’s trying to get answers, and although he’s not at all what you’d call a ‘maverick cop,’ he does sometimes very dubious things as he gets close to the truth. His personal life isn’t exactly pure either: the reason he and Ritter are at odds is that he had an affair with Ritter’s wife Gisela. He’s a complicated character, but Seaman paints him as an essentially good person.

Again in keeping with the tone of the novel, there’s more than one scene of violence. Readers who dislike ‘on-stage’ violence in their stories will notice this. And readers who dislike stories where violence against children is a part of the plot will want to know that this story has that plot point. It’s a gritty story, so some of the violence is made very clear. But the scenes of violence are not extended, nor are they inconsistent with the main plot.

Some have compared this story to Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, although those take place beginning just a few years later, and in a different part of Germany. Sometimes such comparisons are made simply for publicity reasons; in this instance, there really are some similarities. There is a similar kind of gritty, noir feel to this novel and a similar level of violence and moral ambiguity. That said though, readers who expect Klein to be ‘the next Bernie Gunther’ will be disappointed. Klein is a different character and the story is a different sort of story. Seaman’s writing style is not a ‘clone’ of Kerr’s.

The Killing of Emma Gross is a dark portrait of life in one part of Germany just before the full effects of the Great Depression are felt (and, as you’ll no doubt know, before the real rise of National Socialism). It features some ugly murders and complicated, not-always-sympathetic characters. And it introduces us to a police detective who’s trying to do the best job he can despite being very far from perfect himself. But what’s your view? Have you read The Killing of Emma Gross? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 2 February/Tuesday 3 February – The Gingerbread House – Carin Gerhardsen

Monday 9 February/Tuesday 10 February – The Cornish Coast Murder – John Bude

Monday 16 February/Tuesday 17 February – China Trade – S.J. Rozan


Filed under Damien Seaman, The Killing of Emma Gross

34 responses to “In The Spotlight: Damien Seaman’s The Killing of Emma Gross

  1. Creepy – I started reading this yesterday – although I wonder if the title was in my head because I read it on your blog. In which case, not creepy…but I prefer to think it’s a psychic-crime-fiction-connection!

    • That’s what I prefer to think too, Crimeworm. It’s an honour to be on your ‘wavelength.’ I hope you’ll enjoy this one. As I say, not exactly for the faint of heart, but an interesting look at the era and at that particular murder.

      • Fascinating era; I often pick out books based then. I’m engrossed in The Ice Twins at present, but am snatching odd pieces of this too (one book is never enough!)

        • No, it isn’t for me either, Crimeworm 🙂 . And it really is an interesting historical era. I’ve read more than one book set then, just for that reason. And I’ll be keen to know what you think of The Ice Twins.

  2. It’s a disaster reading your blog when I’m on a TBR Double Dare challenge. No more new books, but this is one I’d certainly be interested in (in the future).

    • Sorry, Marina Sofia (but thank you). I know all about wanting to reduce the TBR *As she looks ruefully at her own tottering heaps of books.* If you get to the point where you read this, I hope you’ll be glad you did.

  3. Once again you’ve chosen a book that I’ve not heard of before but sounds like my perfect read! Even though I’m not a huge fan of on page violence, sometimes it is required within the context of the wider storyline. This sounds like one of those books. Must go now to put this on my list!

  4. Ooh, I like gritty murders. This one sounds like one I might have to check out.

    • There’s certainly enough grit in it, Sue, to help an oyster make a pearl. But I didn’t feel as though Seaman adds the violence and noir-ishness just for the effect. If you do get the chance to read it, I hope you’ll like it.

  5. Another one that’s completely new to me, and sounds very interesting. On the list it goes….

  6. Your post made me think of Margaret Atwood’s wonderful novel, Alias Grace.

    This is from Wikipedia:

    The story is about the notorious 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in Upper Canada. Two servants of the Kinnear household, Grace Marks and James McDermott, were convicted of the crime. McDermott was hanged and Marks was sentenced to life imprisonment.

    Although the novel is based on factual events, Atwood constructs a narrative with a fictional doctor, Simon Jordan, who researches the case. Although ostensibly conducting research into criminal behaviour, he slowly becomes personally involved in the story of Grace Marks and seeks to reconcile his perception of the mild mannered woman he sees with the murder of which she has been convicted.

    First published in 1996 by McClelland & Stewart, it won the Canadian Giller Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

    Hey, I have to root for my country! 🙂

    • Of course you do, Carol! And you’ve gotten me really interested in this book! It sounds like an interesting treatment of one of those really memorable cases. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Thanks for another great spotlight, Margot. But, for once, I don’t think this one is for me – phew! 🙂

  8. Clarissa Draper

    I find true crime stories incredibly haunting. This sounds like another of the same. I like them though. I am still haunted by In Cold Blood by Capote.

  9. I have this book on my kindle but still haven’t got around to reading it. Thanks for the review!

  10. I almost think I’ve heard of that case. I never though I’d like books like this, but read The Monster of Florence since I’d read most of Preston’s other books. It was riveting.

    • Dagny – Sometimes those real-life cases can be absolutely fascinating, and you can see why an author would want to bring it to life. Thanks for mentioning Monster of Florence as an example. I admit I’ve not (yet) read that one, but you’re not the first to let me know that it’s worth the read.

  11. How any of us can hope to keep our tbrs down when we read each others blogs is beyond me. We’re just doomed. Luckily I’ve read this one.

    I really enjoyed The Killing of Emma Gross. I enjoyed the dark feel of it. The difference of it to the usual books I read. I thought Seaman did a wonderful job of putting us right there where he wanted us.

    • Rebecca – I know exactly what you mean. My TBR never gets lower… As to this novel, I think you’re absolutely right about the sense of context Seaman creates. He invites the reader to be drawn into the story. And although it is dark and has plenty of violence in it, the reader does get a sense of what that place and time were probably like.

  12. Patti Abbott

    Looks as good as you told me. And I have a new TBR out here. Are we crazy, yes!

  13. Damien Seaman

    Hello Margot.This is Damien here. Thank you for your wonderful analysis of my book and your desire to share it with others. And thank you to any and all readers who took a risk on ‘Emma Gross’ based on finding out about it from Margot. This really brightened my day.

    • Hello, Damien. It’s my pleasure to spotlight …Emma Gross. I really respect what you’ve done in taking a real-life crime and adding your own innovation and perception to create a unique story. I also appreciate the research you did for this, and that you shared what you found with readers. I hope very much that we’ll see more of Thomas Klein, too. Wishing you much success!

  14. I also have had this on my kindle for quite a while. I should actually get to reading it. Soon.

  15. Col

    Ditto Tracy – I have had this one untouched for a few years now, more books than time!

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