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by Andrea Maria Schenkel and Anthea Bell, trans
Quercus, June 2008
181 pages
9.99 GBP
ISBN: 1847243665

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THE MURDER FARM opens with short explanatory statement by an unnamed and unknown narrator who explains that s/he had visited this village just after the end of the war to stay with distant relations. Years later when s/he read of the events at 'the murder farm' s/he went back to talk to people who were willing to talk to 'a stranger who was nonetheless familiar'. The remainder of the book consists of three elements. First a series of first-person accounts, in italics, of various villagers whom the unknown narrator has interviewed. Secondly third-person narrative following the events and, eventually, explaining them. And thirdly, various extracts from a very lengthy prayer. Even with all these elements taken together this is a short book, markedly so in these days of what seem like ever-increasing bulk.

However short it may be in terms of length, THE MURDER FARM certainly does not lack depth. There is though a big problem in any assessment of its success and this is connected with the translation. Judgements on any translated book are more complex but this is especially so here because of the book's literary and formal facets. Perhaps the most important of these relates to the various first-person testimonies. For these to really work as powerfully as they should then each 'voice' should be as individual as possible. Obviously they are in terms of what they say, but not really in the way that they say it, at least in this translation. I have no way of knowing whether this is a fault in the translation or in the original novel; it is quite possible that the individual voices became 'flattened' in the English version. Beyond this THE MURDER FARM is a very specifically German book. While the events at its centre and the solution could be the subject of a mystery set anywhere, much of the sociological and historical background is very specifically German; the German experience of the war and its aftermath. It is this, rather than the murders themselves, which hold much of the power and interest. For this reason anglicisation in the translation, such as someone going to the 'pub', is drastically misjudged.

The very obvious British comparison which THE MURDER FARM calls to mind is Minette Walters: the use of new and interesting formal narrative techniques, the isolated rural setting, the interest in aberrant psychology. I found the greatest interest to be in the most 'German' aspects of the book; the various perspectives on the war and defeat which the voices give. In this translation I cannot judge a very interesting book to have been wholly successful because the voices do not have enough individuality; whether this is a fault of writer or translator I cannot judge. It may be that this is a book which attempts more than it achieves. But even taking these failings into account THE MURDER FARM is a fascinating, refreshingly short, and laudably ambitious mystery.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, February 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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