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