The Murder Farm
Andrea Maria Schenkel
Translated from the German by Anthea Bell Quercus, 2014, 168 pp.
I was recently contacted by a close friend, the subject of the email bearing the title, “Weird German Book.” She knows me well and of my particular fondness for weird, German, and most of all, books. Would I be interested in speaking with the author? The book was quickly dispatched to me by the American distributor—oddly, without including any publicity, only a slim book packaged alone, the title in large fading red letters across the cover. The name was blunt and to the point: The Murder Farm.
Andrea Maria Schenkel's first novel, Tannöd (German title of The Murder Farm), was originally published eight years ago. At 168 pages in the English-language edition, the book is small in comparison to the trendy prodigious tomes that are weighing down readers on both sides of the Atlantic. The novel is a fictitious examination of one of Germany's most notorious unsolved crimes; toward the end of the winter of 1922, a family of five along with their live-in maid (on her first day of employment) were hacked to death by an unknown axe murderer. Their bodies were piled in their Bavarian farmhouse for days before the rest of the village realized there was any problem. The event bears an uncanny similarity to the 1959 murders of a Kansas farm family, an event later sensationalized in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. There is one major difference, however: the Hinterkaifeck murders—so named after the farmstead that lay in an unincorporated area near the town of Schrobenhausen—have remained unsolved for 90 years. Anyone associated with the original murders is surely long gone and the evidence has been tainted or lost, but the elusiveness of a concrete ending continues to intrigue contemporary Germans. The brutality and the many questions that Hinterkaifeck leaves are compelling to even the most heedless readers, but that is only a small facet of what makes Andrea Maria Schenkel's The Murder Farm so remarkably unnerving, leaving readers to ruminate on the unfolding events of the novel.
Cursory Internet sleuthing from the United States brought me to the scant Wikipedia page about Hinterkaifeck and a handful of conspiracy theory sites that all seem to be borrowing from each other. When I switched over to google.de, the plethora of news articles, original crime scene photographs, and previous documentary videos splashed across my computer screen. Even if Schenkel hadn't told me that the crime still weighs on the minds of Bavarians and the rest of the German population, it became quite obvious as I skimmed through the initial results. In the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a national newspaper based in Munich, a comprehensive article from 2012 marked the 90th anniversary. According to the piece, a few years prior, fifteen detective trainees looked into the case in hopes of finally solving it. No conclusive solution was released.
With Fame Comes the Surreal
I spoke with Schenkel from her apartment in Westchester County, New York. Although, she resides in her hometown of Regensburg, Germany, a Bavarian city not far from where the Hinterkaifeck farmstead once stood, Schenkel takes several trips a year to New York to both seclude herself for weeks to work on writing projects and to enjoy family vacations. Even with four subsequent novels since her debut,only now is the United States getting its first glance with a translation by the keenly adept Anthea Bell, who is known for translating authors Stefan Zweig and W.G. Sebald, among many others.
Although not an immediate success when Schenkel's former publisher Edition Nautilus first released the book, Tannöd became a major must-read a year later, due to the adoration of some critics. The book won the 2007 Deutscher Krimi Preis (German Crime Fiction Prize, an award she would go on to win again the following year for her sophomore novel, Kalteis, making her the first author to win the prize for two consecutive years), and subsequently it beat out established thriller heavyweights for the Martin Beck Award for best international crime book translated into Swedish. When I asked her how life was after the publication of her debut, Schenkel was earnest in her conveyance that, at that time, she was still unhappy. When the popularity finally swelled and the novel became a bestseller, journalists took notice.
They swarmed her, even coming to her house as she lay sick in bed. “One day, I had a TV team there and...I was lying in my bed ill. The TV team was in my [room] and all of the people they wanted to have talking with me had to come to my bed. The whole thing ended with me laying in my bed with...my daughter lying next to me and our neighbors sitting or lying on my bed, too, and we had three musicians playing music,” she said of one particular television portrait filmed about her. “It was very strange.”
The novel became a sensation and was even made required reading for high school students in Germany. Her sons, who are now ages 22 and 18, studied their mother's book in class. At the time, Schenkel's eldest son felt embarrassed, often asking her why couldn't she be a “normal mother.” Her daughter, age 15, has yet to read the book for a school assignment, but has voiced a part in an audio play adaptation when the producers were searching for an authentic Bavarian accent.
Matters of Truth and Fiction
The ideas of family and home are prevalent in The Murder Farm. Investigating the concept of being unsafe in a space where one should feel inherently unassailable is a difficult notion in the novel. The family is relaxed and together on the farm before they are brutally wiped away with each new dastardly swing of the axe. It is an intimate crime, no doubt leaving the murderer covered in blood, the fluid soaked through clothing and matted in hair. The story is made even more unsettling when Schenkel informs me that the heads of all of the real victims have vanished. The investigators at the time purposefully severed the heads to send off to Munich for further examination and then forwarded to Nuremberg. For unknowable reasons, the heads were lost and have never been found.
Not only is The Murder Farm stark in the crime it portrays, the novel's structure is wholly contradistinctive from the selection of European crime novels that the American reading audience is currently gobbling up. This isn’t like the popular dark, brooding works of Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø. For one thing, there is no detective. A common archetype of modern mysteries is the alcoholic, divorced schlub who is acutely clever even while handling a bevy of distractions like unruly teenage offspring and nagging ex-wives. Also, the sleuthing is left to the reader.
The Murder Farm opens with a brief paragraph narrated in the 1950s by an unknown person who, after hearing of the violent crime, returns to the village of Tannöd where they had once visited. Each subsequent chapter is either a firsthand one-sided interview of a villager detailing their version of the facts and the salacious gossip they've heard or a narrative of the events leading up to the murders and the immediate time afterward. The language is simple and bleak, and entirely engrossing. (I read it all in one sitting.) The reader is left to closely follow the winding story, waiting to see if Schenkel offers a conclusion that the actual crime did not. (Don’t worry—I won’t spoil it for you.)
Much of the book is eerily close to the known facts of the Hinterkaifeck murders. Real gossip from the period preceding the 1922 murders is a clear paradigm for the whispers among the villagers of The Murder Farm. Yet, some details have been changed, most notably, moving the events to the 1950s. One is tempted to consider it a literary conceit to allow the characters to live in the wake of World War II as a way to reflect on their village's particularly heinous crime in contrast to the mass crimes carried out by the Nazis. The answer is much simpler and is to be found in the details: the name Betty, ascribed to an eight-year-old girl whose testimony is the first presented, would have had a name change, for this name was unusual for 1920s Germany. Also, chewing gum: the cinnamon flavored gum that Betty's aunt brings her would've been nixed due to anachronism.
Schenkel also thought that she had invented the village of Tannöd, but she eventually learned this was untrue. After searching on a GPS, she found two places with this name. “I thought I made it up. When the book came out, my husband told me, 'Have a look if there's a village named Tannöd' and I said, 'There is no village.'” The fascination continued as journalists sought it out. “They wanted to go to the place, Tannöd. They drove into the Bavarian forest and they asked somebody there for the murder farm and the farmer there says, 'There is no murder farm. What are you talking about?'” The journalists told Schenkel they couldn't find it and that “nobody knows where it is.” (A sharp searcher can find a vague municipality near the Austrian border with the same name.)
A few photos can also be found online of the original farmhouse and the barn where the murders took place. However, nothing of the bloody scene remains today. The buildings were quickly demolished the following year. The field now is used to grow sod for soccer pitches and gardens. A lonely marker is the only obvious sign connecting the area to its frightful past.
The Author's Curiosity
With all of her success and prolific writing career, Schenkel didn't attempt writing until she was in her forties. Married to a doctor and raising her three children, Schenkel was a hausfrau (this biographical tidbit seems to be a major point of interest in many profiles featured in the German press). Schenkel had forgotten what she wanted in life and felt that she had slid back into an expected familial role. Unhappy, she finally reached the point where she had to write something down. With great savvy, Schenkel took to fictionalizing a true crime that had always been lingering in her mind. It was summarily rejected by major German publishers before being picked up by the relatively small press, Edition Nautilus. Perhaps it was a trite question for me to ask her why she decided to write, but her response was layered and unexpected.
It all came back to paper and pens, the true friends of an author. Although, she types her novels on a computer, her notes are still taken in longhand with a fountain pen accompanied by a pot of ink. As a child, she was routinely forced to write with her right hand even though she was born left-handed. It was not until she received a doctor's note excusing her from this outdated practice that she able to write in school with her correct hand. Schenkel explains that she was consistently slow writing classroom dictations as the ink smeared across her hand and page. The entire process left her self-conscious, so she didn't want to be seen writing.
When I first asked her about her current project, Schenkel was temporarily tight-lipped. She is now working on her sixth novel, but her first outside of the crime genre. The idea came to her before Tannöd, but she didn't yet have the confidence to explore the concept. The story takes place both in Europe and New York. At the beginning of our chat, when I asked her why she was drawn to New York, she said, “Going to the States is like going back into my childhood.” Schenkel has a pair of family photographs shot in presumably the Lower East Side in the 1920s of her grandfather. While she gave me few details of her upcoming book, I couldn't help but imagine these photos, vivid in my own mind even without ever seeing them and how they would inspire her next novel, wondering if the idea of home would be a continuing motif.
The curiosity surrounding The Murder Farm and its author remains. The English translation was released in June in the U.S., and a German television crew just wrapped shooting a biographical portrait for a show called Lebenslinien (Lifelines), which required following Schenkel around her New York home for three weeks. The program debuts in the fall. It couldn't be available sooner, she tells me. “You see New York in snow and they say we can't have it on TV if there is snow in the picture in the summer. We need to show it in the fall when they're ready for it.”
Additional sources referenced:
Martin Beck Awards: http://deckarakademin.org/hem/priser/basta-oversatta-kriminalroman/
Süddeutsche Zeitung: http://www.sueddeutsche.de/bayern/jahre-nach-der-tat-von-hinterkaifeck-…