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Friday, 08 May 2009

Chronicler of West Germany: Frank Göhre

English translation by Cathy Milby.


Like many other crime authors Frank Göhre tried several careers before he became a full-time writer.  Born in 1943 he completed training as a wholesaler and as a bookseller.  Later he worked as a bookseller and art dealer and as a copywriter, librarian and editor.  Lots of jobs around books then, before he settled in Hamburg in 1981 as a novelist and screenwriter. Göhre also teaches writing and has received numerous literary and crime prizes.  His list of publications is extensive -  most successful were his St Pauli novels (set in the red-light district of Hamburg) - perhaps because they aren’t just “Kiez-Krimis’”(crime novels set in an inner-city neighbourhood).  Most of his books appeared in the now defunct rororo thriller series.  It is staggering that they are now out-of-print.  Göhre’s more recent works (Zappas letzter Hit (Zappa’s last hit), Mo, Abwärts (Going Down)) are published by Pendragon who, commendably, have made it their business to republish Göhre’s earlier novels.  Göhre is not only a novelist but also the editor of Friedrich Glauser’s works and produced in 2008 a distinctive biography of Glauser – Mo.
ImageAn einem heissen Sommertag (On a hot summer’s day) published in 2008 by Pendragon is a collection.  It contains two earlier novels by Göhre, which have been reworked for this edition - Letzte Station vor Einbruch der Dunkelheit (Last station before nightfall) and Schnelles Geld (Quick money) as well as two previously unpublished stories - Verrückte Schritte (Crazy steps) and Keine Chance (No chance). Letzte Station vor Einbruch der Dunkelheit is an expressionistic text which takes place in the immediate post-war period - not the subject of many German crime novels.  The bleak atmosphere across the land and the suppressed but, at the same time, ever-present fascism culminate in zenophobia towards the “Reingeschneiten” (new immigrants) and in an over-reaction by former “Obersturmführer” at Auschwitz, Rolf Strater.  As usual in Göhre there is a wide cast of characters – few of them sympathetic.  The trio of policeman who wander through nearly all his novels are introduced here, with Chief Inspector Gottschalk in charge.  He is hunting the murderer of a young girl but, in doing so, stumbles on a mass murderer: “sent umpteen Jews into the gas chambers and swanks around here in his villa”.
Schnelles Geld “is characterised by the false dawn of the sixties, by its subculture and rock and roll, by its rejection of the nine-to-five - not for political reasons but out of boredom and the need to make a fast buck – this to be achieved by shady car dealing.  The novel is a coming-of age tale centring on those hopes of an interesting life, lost to conformism - “it’s all gone” murmurs Charly “all fucked up and dead.  Nothing works any more.  Not even twenty five and I’m finished.  I go bowling with Otto, you know? Bowling! And here we are at a teenage party.  OK, don’t ask me why I’m here.  Don’t even know.  Come on, let’s get pissed.”  The dream of changing the world has changed into a dream of quick money - which fails, of course.  Charly, who, like Göhre once, wants to escape a boring job in a library, has lost everything by the end.
The three “Kiezromane”, Der Schrei des Schmetterlings (The butterfly’s scream)(1986), Der Tod des Samurai (Death of the Samurai)(1989) and Der Tanz des Skorpions (Dance of the scorpions) (1991) tell the history of the Federal Republic through the interwoven threads of politics, business and the milieu of the Hamburg sex industry.  All types of relationships, mainly sexual, are portrayed in a documentary way - voyeuristically and relentlessly - reduced to power and business.  Good sex, or even love, is rare and when there is a desire for it, it always fails - in the tradition of American film noir – we’re not in France, after all!  At the centre of the action stand inspectors Broszinski, Gottschalk and Fedder and their adversary the king of the “Kiez” (neighbourhood) Werner “Emma’” Stobbe, reading Proust, at large in Ibiza.  The first two policemen pack in their jobs in the course of the trilogy.  There’s a lot of talk of opting out in Göhre and the desire for it is strong. Opting out of a job or a relationship, getting out of the neighbourhood, out of prostitution.  Plans that only rarely succeed.
The rise and the power of the “Kiez” king Werner “Emma” Stobbe is a paradigm for the German post-war economic boom and its failure.  The three policemen are no match for this criminal and business man who has sure-fire connections with big politics.  Even their bosses are corrupt and in cahoots with the “Kiez” king. Der Tanz des Skorpions is more fragmentary than the other two volumes, the sex scenes and murders are more brutal and more sexist.  With its short passages the novel reads almost like a screenplay.  The structure of the sex industry as well as everyday police work are described in detail.  At the centre of the plot of the third in the series is the depressive killer, Karl “Zappa” Weber, to whom Göhre has devoted a further book, Zappas letzter Hit.  The rivalries in the “Kiez” are still being played out between the Hamburg and Vienna pimps and globalization and the trafficking of prostitutes seem to lie far in the future,  the exotic arrives in the form of an Italian girl at the strip joint. 
 Zappas letzter Hit, the 2006 novel published by Pendragon takes place in the years from 1996 to 2002 and returns to the theme of the three St Pauli novels.  It starts with the suicide in prison of the killer Zappa and his wife. Alongside the unromantic description of life on the street it is about gentrification and, more strongly than the other novels, about corruption in politics.  Broszinski has left the police force due to the disappearance of his lover Birte and lives among artists.  Gottschalk has opened a gourmet restaurant and wants to rise even higher - with the help of the “party king” Smotschek.  Only Jörg Fedder has stayed loyal to his job.  Zappas daughter, convinced that her father was murdered, goes on a campaign of revenge.
It’s strange how Göhre depicts his female protagonists.  However liberated they may be in life (such as Birte the investigative journalist or Angelika Gabers the killer’s lawyer), they are mainly described in terms of their appearance and their sexuality.  No woman is portrayed without reference to their legs or rear.  The portrayal of Evelyn is crass.  She is Fedder’s wife and the lover of influential men.   She is brutally raped in the pub toilet and the next morning greets Gottschalk again complete with open bathrobe, freshly shaved legs, perfectly varnished toenails and champagne. Overall, sex plays a central role in Göhre‘s work and isn’t limited to the sexualisation of his women characters.
Image Abwärts (1984), a screenplay written jointly with Carl Schenkel, was originally published by Heyne in an illustrated edition and was a hit in the cinemas for Götz George and Wolfgang Kieling.  Pendragon republished it in 2006 with a twenty-page epilogue by Frank Göhre who tells the story of the creation and marketing of the film.  Abwärts is a “Kammerspiel” (a “chamber” drama) with four people in a lift and couldn’t happen now in the age of the mobile phone.  The four are: washed-up PR-man Jörg, ambitious PR-babe Marion (on the make at his expense), the young pleb Pit and the loser Gössmann who will be the only one to emerge unscathed from the wreckage – “one wounded, one dead and a completely fucked up lift”.
ImageGöhre’s literary skill , unique in German crime novels in its compact and snappy style, is shown in the biographical novel about Friedrich Glauser, Mo.  It is an existential life story that is also, in literary form, the medical account of an outsider : “I have an ache in me that I have to keep numbing, do you understand?”(p. 40).  The biography consists of a number of changing perspectives and literary forms and is fast-paced.  Göhre portrays the psychiatry of the period, the foreign legion and the silencing of the first German speaking crime writer.  Glauser was the creator of Sergeant Studer and was a dadaist and anarchist.  The book ends with his death in Italy on 8th December 1938, his 42nd birthday. The reality of Glauser’s life could not be expressed more beautifully or poignantly.

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