Cold War kid: author David Young on his acclaimed new crime thriller Stasi Child set in 1970s East Berlin
Former journalist David Young has made a huge impact with his debut novel Stasi Child, a crime thriller set in Cold War-era East Berlin. He spoke to David Roy about the book ahead of an appearance at the Open House Festival next week.
STASI Child is David Young's debut novel, the first of a planned trilogy of crime thrillers featuring heroine Karin Muller, an 'oberleutnant' in the East Berlin Volkspolizei (the 'People's Police') of 1975.
Muller and Hull-born creator (not to be confused with the Enniskillen-born journalist of the same name) are already off to a flying start with their first case, in which the East Berlin cop investigates a body found at the Berlin Wall.
An unidentified teenage girl has apparently been gunned down during an illegal crossing from West Germany to the German Democratic Republic (DDR) – the opposite route of the era's regular escape attempts.
With several other irregularities at the crime scene and the investigation being closely supervised by the all-seeing, all-knowing Ministry For State Security – the 'Stasi' – Muller suspects that there is much more to the case than meets the eye.
The book provides readers with a portal into a not-so-long gone world of communist cops operating in a State riddled with corruption and all pervasive paranoia, where every apparent ally is also a potential informer and 'difficult' adolescents – like the novel's central teenage character, Irma Behrendt – are consigned to work camps.
Stasi Child has attracted rave reviews since its release in February. A 'Crime Book of the Month' in The Times, it has gone on to be longlisted for the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Novel Of The Year and the Crime Writer's Association Endeavour Historical Dagger Award for best 'period' crime novel.
The book should appeal to fans of the German Cold War-era TV spy series Deutschland 83 along with readers who enjoyed the non-fiction hit Stasiland, Anna Funder's grimly fascinating look at the Stasi's four decade crusade to make the DDR into a 'total surveillance state', and Tom Rob-Smith's best-selling USSR-set crime novel Child 44.
Indeed, there's a reason that the title of Young's debut novel – which began as a class assignment on the Crime Thriller MA at the City University London – might seem a little familiar.
"I don't know if I've ever admitted this, but 'Stasi Child' was actually permed from the syllables of Stasiland and Child 44," chuckles the former journalist, who spent 27 years as a news editor with BBC World Service TV.
"I stayed far too long," admits Young of his former career.
"By the end, I was fed up and wanted to get out. I turned to novels as an escape route."
When the MA students were asked to pen the opening chapter of a novel based on a theme of 'setting', the former DDR immediately sprang to Young's mind as somewhere with enormous, highly atmospheric potential.
"About eight years previously, I'd been in a little indiepop band (The Candy Twins) that managed to blag a tour of Germany," he tells me.
"We played mostly in the former East – and that's what gave me the idea of setting the novel in Berlin.
"I was actually reading Stasiland between gigs and I was stuck by how you can still see the imprint of the old East Germany in the city," recalls Young.
"You notice it especially on the old Stalinalle, or Karl-Marx-Alle as it is now, and lots of the old DDR-era apartment blocks."
Indeed, the site of the band's first gig in a now defunct club beneath Hackescher Markt S-bahn station serves as the Volkspolizei's HQ in the novel.
Interestingly, there's also Northern Ireland link to Stasi Child: Young's main tutor on the MA was Claire McGowan, Rostrevor-born author of The Fall and the Paula McGuire series of crime novels.
"Claire didn't like my original idea for a book, which was a bawdy 18th century romp," he reveals.
"She found the main character fairly revolting and encouraged me to keep going with Stasi Child instead. She was very much involved in the first draft of the novel."
Its DDR setting proved crucial to the book's subsequent success: it's main unique selling point is the fact that Karin Muller and co exist in a world which hasn't really been explored before in crime fiction, at least not in the English language.
"On a very basic level, it's better to to write something that someone else hasn't already done so that you've got a chance of getting your book sold," he tells me of his "slightly cynical" choice of subject matter.
"Unless you can sell the book, you're not going to get published."
Happily, Twenty7Books have already signed Young up for a pair of sequels, the rights to which have been optioned for TV by Euston Films (Minder, The Sweeney) along with Stasi Child itself.
In other words, we haven't heard the last of Karin Muller – or indeed the novel's titular character – just yet: readers can look forward to being back in the DDR next year for more Cold War-era cloak and dagger crime intrigue.
:: David Young talks to BBC NI's Stephen Walker about Stasi Child at the Open House Festival, Wednesday August 17, Space Theatre, Bangor, 7.30pm. Tickets £10 via Openhousebangor.com.