Schenkel, Andrea Maria - 'The Murder Farm' (translated by Anthea Bell)
THE MURDER FARM by German author Andrea Maria Schenkel is a hugely successful and innovative crime novella based on an unsolved 1920s German murder case. Set in fifties Bavaria, THE MURDER FARM ostensibly deals with the shocking murder of a farming family, the Danners, in a remote community, but in fact casts an acute eye on the community that such awful events took place in.
It becomes clear from early in the novella that behind the peaceful rural facade, things were very amiss indeed in the Danner family prior to the murder. The farm owner Danner was an abusive stingy bully, whose downtrodden wife sought refuge in an obsessive religiousness, ignoring her daughter's traumas. Even worse, there are rumours that Danner was the father of his daughter's children. The shadow of World War II is still very much present 10 years later - some of the prisoners of war from the region have only fairly recently returned to their homes, and it is wondered whether the murder might be retribution for the suicide of a Polish forced labourer working at the 'Murder Farm'.
THE MURDER FARM has an unconventional structure; shifting backward and forward in time, from after the murder to before then after again. In addition we see events from multiple perspectives; the reader hears from each of the victims (apart from two-year-old Johannes), the murderer and the media, and the reader is also privy to the unofficial testimonies of the wider community, as collated by an unnamed visitor to the village. Those who knew the victims attempt to justify their inaction, both whilst the family was alive, and once the family's disappearance was first noticed. In between chapters there are extracts from various prayers for rescue and salvation, rather reminiscent of the role of the chorus in Greek tragedy, poignantly highlighting the lack of mercy shown to the family.
THE MURDER FARM is a gripping read, combining a deceptively spare style (the book is just over 220 short pages in length) with a thoughtful meditation on collective guilt and complicity, as it depicts the darkness at the heart of a seemingly god-fearing rural community. Despite the relatively large cast of characters, the author is remarkably good at drawing out the differences in speech patterns and preoccupations that distinguish each villager as an individual. The unusual structure as mentioned above is highly effective in giving us a rounded view of the community, putting the reader in a privileged position of knowing the truth whilst the police and unnamed amateur investigator do not. I would highly recommend this unusual, thought-provoking book and look forward to the English translation of the author's other crime book, "Kalteis".
Laura Root, England