Georg Heuser joins the Murder Squad in the midst of the biggest manhunt the city has ever seen. A serial killer is slaughtering women on S-Bahn trains and leaving their battered bodies by the tracks. Heuser must confront evil eye-to-eye as he helps track down the murderer. July 1959, peacetime West Germany: a pioneering young lawyer, Paula Siebert, is the sole woman in a federal unit investigating men who have committed crimes of unimaginable magnitude and horror. Their leader has just been arrested. His name is Georg Heuser. Siebert is sure of his guilt. But one question haunts her: how could a once decent man have become a sadistic monster? The answer lies in the desolate wastes of the Russian Front, the vast landmass conquered by Hitler’s forces… the new empire the Nazis call Ostland.
To simply label Ostland as a crime thriller would not only do a great disservice to the sheer power and scope of this novel, but would in turn devalue a book that truly encompasses the very best elements of both the crime and historical fiction genres. This is without a doubt one of the most affecting novels that I have read, so much so, that at times I had to take a breath, emotionally undone by the, at times, harrowing depictions of one of the greatest evils perpetrated in the history of mankind, which is so strongly brought to the reader’s consciousness. This is not a book that just deserves to be read but a book that also needs to be read…
From its deceptive beginning as a seemingly straightforward and compelling crime read, Thomas not only manipulates our emotions to the central protagonist, Georg Heuser, but then allows us to bear witness to the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime during the latter stages of World War II. Opening with the real-life investigation of a brutal serial killer, stalking the S-Bahn network, Heuser makes his entrance as a young idealistic detective, driven by an innate sense of morality in the hunt for a killer. At the close of the S-Bahn killer case with the apprehension of the murderer Heuser tries to come to terms with his encounter with “a genuinely evil human being” and that to enter the killer’s mind was to “enter a world of violence, degradation and filth, a world without pity, morality, or any feeling whatsoever for his fellow human beings- a world with which I had nothing in common at all” and a sentiment of the young Heuser that remained in my mind throughout the book. With the indelible links between the German security departments Heuser quickly comes to the attention of SS-Reinhard Heydrich and his cohorts, and being promoted to SS-First Lieutenant is despatched to Minsk, an area where half the population is Jewish and which quickly becomes a major processing centre for Reich Jews and the beginning point for Heuser’s descent into evil, previously such an anathema to him.
What strikes me most about this novel is the adept way in which not only Thomas assails our sensibilities in his description of the harrowing processing of the Jews, using at times the most understated of images to convey the horror, but how the almost banality of murder imprints itself on the consciences of those despatched to accomplish this task. Hence, our empathies and reactions to Heuser are consistently manipulated and changed, as we bear witness to his actions, and through a parallel post-war storyline involving the bringing of war criminals to justice. Suffice to say that our original perceptions of Heuser as a formerly steadfast harbinger of morality are significantly coloured by the extreme brutality that we witness in the latter half of the book- a brutality that Thomas evokes so deeply in our minds through the powerful and affecting nature of his writing, that at times is almost too uncomfortable to bear but so necessary to read. Thomas’ evocation of historical fact, and the prevailing atmosphere of evil, gives rise to some of the most powerful writing I have experienced, and a true study of the shifting nature of morality and its indelible role at the heart of our inherent instinct for survival.
In conclusion, I can only say that Ostland is a book that transcends our expectations as crime readers, and is a richly rewarding read. It effortlessly causes us to engage with it, never shying away from the realities of evil and the destruction of morality it brings in its wake. A novel that unerringly stimulates the thoughts and emotions of the reader, compounded by the harsh realities of human history that form its foundation. Quite simply, a must read.
Read David Thomas’ thoughts on Ostland courtesy of http://grahamsmithwriter.blogspot.co.uk
(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)