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The Killing of Emma Gross by Damien Seaman

The Killing of Emma Gross

by Damien Seaman

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The Killing of Emma Gross is based around the real-life case of Peter Kürten, the so-called "vampire of Düsseldorf" or "monster of Düsseldorf," a serial killer who plied his trade during the days of Germany's Weimar Republic (1919-1933). The author is quick to point out that the "vampire" label didn't actually originate at the time, but Kürten's crimes were definitely beyond heinous, as he brutally preyed on women and young girls. While those crimes and the "monster" who committed them are definitely a focus in this novel, the book examines a detective's quest to solve another murder, that of a young prostitute named Emma Gross, also a real victim, but not one of Kürten's. He claimed her as one of his, but it was a false confession. There is absolutely, I repeat, absolutely no light in this novel, but it is definitely a story worth looking into.

Detective Thomas Klein of the Düsseldorf KRIPO has accomplished the impossible. He has arranged to meet Peter Kürten and put an end to the fear plaguing the streets of Düsseldorf. Kürten is arrested and taken away, but not by Klein; that honor went to his rival, Detective Inspector Michael Ritter. Ritter and Klein are at odds not only because Klein worked on his own to arrange Kürten's arrest and withheld important evidence, but also because Klein had previously been sleeping with Ritter's wife Gisela. When Kürten is brought in, Klein is put away in a cell as well and worked over -- part of Ritter's revenge and anger toward him. When the police start to question Kürten, however, he won't speak to anyone about the case except for Klein, so Ritter is forced to release him and accept that Klein will be a part of the investigation. Kürten is only too eager to talk -- he confesses to all the murders and as proof that he really did them, takes police to the body of a little girl they'd been looking for and others not previously known about. But when he confesses to the murder of Emma Gross, something is off -- he gets the details wrong. In the meantime, another man had supposedly confessed, was taken to trial and convicted of the murders of Emma Gross and two others; that man now lives in a mental hospital, too mentally ill to be put away in prison at the time. Klein realizes that two of the murders confessed to by Kürten were ascribed to this other man, and if that's the case, perhaps the killing of Emma Gross was done by someone else entirely. Following only the slimmest of hints and leads, Klein sets about to find Emma's killer and help clear the name of the man falsely accused.

The Killing of Emma Gross is very straightforward, no unnecessary detours are taken throughout the novel, and the historical era is well conveyed, although perhaps not as fully as I'd expected. It's nearing the end of the Weimar era (1929) and the author captures ordinary citizens' frustration at inflation and unemployment, the Communists who took on "capitalist corruption" and printed their versions of the "truth" in their newspapers, police brutality and corruption, and the darker, seedier side of the city during this time. In one scene that I'll probably never forget because of the image it made in my head, Klein walks into a club where a bizarre cabaret is going on, performed by women dressed in nothing but a Kaiser Wilhelm mustache and a helmet. The time and place are not conveyed as well as they are, say, in Marek Krajewski's characterizations of this period in his Eberhard Mock novels, but there's enough here to transport the reader. Aside from that issue, the author is a master of sleight-of-hand (I can't explain why, but just trust me here), his central mystery is very well focused, as is Klein's investigation. There's also bonus at the end of this book for anyone who may be remotely interested in the real-life Peter Kürten -- a timeline that takes the reader through his crimes up to his eventual execution in 1931.

I'd recommend this novel for readers of very dark crime -- this book is definitely not for the faint of heart, nor for anyone looking for a happy ending. It's edgy, gritty and I have to say, one of the better books I've read in the area of crime this year. It is a no-nonsense, cutesy-less novel and I hope he continues this trend in the next book he writes -- considering that this is his first novel, I'm amazed to discover that his way of writing crime fiction matches the type of work I look forward to finding and reading in this genre. Super. ( )
  bcquinnsmom | Jul 9, 2013 |
March, 1929…a prostitute named Emma Gross is killed in a Dusseldorf hotel room and her body mutilated so the wounds mimic those borne by two other murder victims. Johann Stausberg confesses to all three crimes and is sent to Grafenberg Asylum for the criminally insane. That should have been that, but a year later, the arrest of serienmörder (serial killer) Peter Kürten brings to light certain discrepancies that investigating officer Thomas Klein simply can’t ignore. And it doesn’t hurt that proving Johann Stausberg didn’t kill Emma Gross will humiliate his ex-partner Michael Ritter who has hated him ever since learning of Thomas’ affair with his wife Gisela.

Damien Seaman’s debut novel, The Killing of Emma Gross stuns the reader like a blow from the claw-hammer wielded by one of its characters. The novel is equal parts police procedural, psychological thriller and dramatic deconstruction of a love affair gone very, very wrong. This is a plot that involves secrets and lies buried so deep inside that winkling them out involves blood and pain on an epic scale.

For everyone but Thomas, the question of “Who killed Emma Gross?” is less important than “Who cares who killed Emma Gross?” and the closer Thomas gets to answers, the more questions surface. This is not a simple book and Thomas is not a simple character. A veteran of the Great War, he is scarred inside and out from the experience, but traumatized even more by the death of “Lilli” and his wretched love affair with Ritter’s wife. He is capable of mistreating people in his search for the truth, but he’s also susceptible to moments of what he calls “softness.”

He is utterly appalled and repelled by the bond Peter Kürten wants to forge with him but forced by circumstances to nurture that relationship in order to get information he hopes will save a little girl’s life. Peter is a total sociopath who enjoys his little jokes at Thomas’ expense, and who tries to arrange to have his wife collect the reward money offered for information leading to his arrest.

Everyone wants credit for bringing “the Ripper” to justice, and the game of ambition being played out in the Dusseldorf police station is complicated by the arrival of Ernst Gennat, an investigator from Berlin who suspects that all is not what it seems but who has no interest in upsetting the status quo, at least not openly. He is, however, not above giving Thomas tacit permission to probe all he likes—so long as there’s plausible deniability back at the station.

Some reviewers have compared The Killing of Emma Gross to Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir novels featuring private detective Bernie Gunther, but Seaman’s work most resembles that of novelist/historian Caleb Carr, particularly his third novel Angel of Death. Like Angel of Death and its prequel The Alienist, The Killing of Emma Gross weaves real people—pathologist Karl Berg, murderer Peter Kürten, Chief Inspector Ernst Gennat, victim Emma Gross—into a plot filled with original characters so seamlessly that it’s impossible to tell where invention takes over.

The story plays out against an historical backdrop that is subtle—a comment about the economy here, a description of a decadent nightclub there . The rabid paranoia attached to the Communists becomes part of the plot as the investigative reporter Du Pont embarrasses the police by uncovering their incompetence and pointing fingers at their ineffectual investigations. Thomas, for all his irreverence, is not entirely immune to the zeitgeist. At one point, he tiredly admits to himself that there are arguments for sterilizing “the criminal classes.” Since Thomas is a “good German,” we want to think he’s only joking, but we know what is to come in a decade and so the remark is chilling.

Seaman, who has lived in Germany, salts his dialogue with the kinds of phrases not taught in high school classes, words like the epithet arshloch, a term that needs no translation. The variety of derogatory words his characters use for “prostitute” seems indicative of a culture that was fascinated by illicit sex.

With The Killing of Emma Gross, Seaman turns lurid fact into brilliant fiction. ( )
  kattomic | Jan 16, 2012 |
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