The Killing of Emma Gross. Fiction Negotiating its Way Through a Grim Reality.
I bought The Killing of Emma Gross because Damien Seaman is due to make an appearance at the Broadway Book Club this month for a question and answer session. For the princely sum of £1.98 I bought the e-book from Amazon and soon realised it was one of the best value crime books I had read for some time. Even though I have interviewed him before the event, I dare say there will be plenty to ask when the book club meets on the last Thursday of this month.
What attracted your attention to this case in the first place?
Peter Kürten was omnicidal. I mean, this guy killed practically anyone and anything, with practically anything that came to hand. The other known serial killers at the time followed a certain victim profile and method of killing, whereas Kürten’s victims and methods were so varied that at one point the police thought they were after four separate killers.
Kürten’s killings were also very public. Upstanding citizens grew so scared that they began shopping their neighbours to the police and jumping at ghosts.
Kürten’s case allowed me to write about a society tearing itself apart in fear and mistrust, and I loved that.
Lastly, there’s the fact that the Emma Gross I write about was a real person, a real victim whose murderer was never caught. I wanted to try mixing fiction into a real life case and seeing what I could come up with.
Would you describe the political and economic situation in Germany at that time and where your detective fits into the system?
Ha! Where do I start? Imagine the current eurozone crisis magnified fifty times over. Economic instability and a crisis of faith in public institutions? Check. The rise of far right and far left fringe parties, threatening to tip the delicate political balance into chaos? Check. The only thing missing in Europe today, is having just gone through a world war. Hell, think about the fact that current German monetary policy is still ruled by the hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and that should give you some idea of how deep the mental scars go.
My character, Thomas Klein, is a detective and ex-soldier who served on the Western front as an elite stormtrooper and has seen the worst of what men are capable of doing to each other. His political sympathies are broadly left-leaning yet socially conservative, as were those of most Prussian city dwellers at the time. And of course he is a fatalist, which is something that most Germans had learned to be by 1930. Klein has no idea what the future might bring, but he has a pretty good idea that it’s going to be bad.
You touch on the general dislike and suspicion of communists, but how much was there a hint at that time of what was to come?
That depends on which development you’re talking about. The Prussian state government was solidly social democrat throughout the period, and it was obsessed with the threat from the Communists. That’s why the Nazis don’t make an appearance in my book. To most people in an industrial city like Düsseldorf the Nazis were practically invisible. Certainly very few people seriously expected the Nazis to get into power on their own – every other government since the First World War had been an unstable coalition.
But if you’re talking about people being scared of the threat from Communist Russia, then that was genuine even then. Most Germans feared the spectre of Bolshevism, to the point where you could lose your job if your employer found out you were a party member.
How did you research policing methods at that time?
I went to the Strand bookstore in New York while I was in the city visiting a good friend of mine. On a whim I went browsing the true crime shelves and found the perfect book for my needs: the English adaptation of ‘System der Kriminalistik’ by Hans Gross, a professor of criminology at the University of Prague. The English version – ‘Criminal Investigation: a practical textbook’ – came out in 1924 and was designed for the use of British colonial police, judges and administrators who might be stranded out in the jungle somewhere without recourse to forensic experts. For that reason, it’s the bible of practical crime scene investigation for that time. It’s a wonderful book, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the period. I also recommend a trip to the Strand bookstore if you’re planning a holiday in New York anytime soon.
How advanced were forensics and autopsy techniques then?
I think you’d be surprised. Police and forensic pathologists could map blood spatter patterns, analyse fingerprints and footprints, work out times of death pretty much as accurately as forensic pathologists can now. But all of this is beside the point, really. If detectives couldn’t get a confession or eye witnesses to testify in court, then the odds on getting a conviction were decidedly long. And if you read memoirs of cops and lawyers today it doesn’t seem like that’s changed very much.
As you say in your historical notes (at the end of the book), mistakes have been made with inaccurate copies of Kürten’s original confessions and Berg’s memories. What sources did you use for the book?
That’s the challenge of research. Most of what we think of as history is just the least ridiculous guess from the evidence you can find. What was interesting to me when researching The Killing of Emma Gross was that none of the secondary sources I read about the case had been researched properly. They all contained the same mistake, which I didn’t even know was a mistake until I read Karl Berg’s book and realised that there’s a typo in it which has been reprinted ever since.
Actually, Karl Berg’s book was my single most useful source. The difference is that I checked it against other accounts. Berg was the forensic pathologist who worked on several of the autopsies of Peter Kürten’s victims, and he later interviewed Kürten extensively, so he could testify as to Kürten’s mental state during the trial. So Berg’s book contains details of the autopsies, details of the progress of the case, Kurten’s complete confessions, and more. The most useful source to check it against was a book by Margaret Seaton-Wagner, a contemporary journalist. No other sources went into as much detail as these two, and I had fun trying to reconcile the differences between them. At one stage of the case these two books even disagree over the names of the victims!
How did you work through the topography of Düsseldorf when planning the book? Was this done from personal experience or by referring to maps?
I’ve never been to Düsseldorf. I got it all from maps. Lots and lots and lots of maps, both modern and from the period. Remember, 1930s Düsseldorf was destroyed during the war, so I couldn’t visit it because it didn’t exist anymore.
How did you manage to deal with the slide back and forwards from reality to fiction in your writing?
I soon found that if I’d just kept to the facts, the story wouldn’t find its feet. So I created my own story around Thomas Klein and his personal struggles and I fit the case into that. It would have been pretty dry reading otherwise.
The dialogue is very detailed and appears specific to that time and place and some German words, presumably slang, are left in. How could you be sure the content of the dialogue was authentic?
There was a brilliant book called Voluptuous Panic, by Mel Gordon, which gave me most of the slang I wanted. Then I just checked it against what I thought would work in the story. Using German was a great way of allowing my characters to swear without offending anyone.
The scene where Gertrud Albermann’s body is found is based on description of an actual event. How did you go about avoiding sensationalising this?
Oh, but I did sensationalise it, and deliberately so. Gertrud’s body was really discovered in November 1929. I changed that so in my story she’s only just gone missing in May 1930, when Kürten is arrested. I did that to give the story a bit more urgency – is she still alive? Can they find her in time? All that.
But I think what you’re referring to is that the scene gives the reader the sense of the horror of the crime without it feeling exploitative. I did that by focusing on Klein’s reaction to the body rather than the body itself. So first of all we get his shock, and then we get him analysing the evidence because it’s a crime scene and he’s a professional detective. All the details of the body mentioned in the scene are there to establish facts about the crime and not to titillate.
What methods do you use for planning this type of novel, with all its twists and turns?
I like to bounce ideas off people in the early stages of planning a story. It’s more fun than sitting in a room on your own, and it helps to try out lots of ideas early on, however wacky.
That said, I usually find that by the time I get halfway through my first draft, my original ending won’t work, and then I have a week-long dark night of the soul when I go off and work out how to solve my major plotting crisis. I always have to do that bit on my own, and I’m generally best avoided at that point.
How much outside editing help did you have?
I have my roster of first readers. They reviewed the book for plot holes, repetition and the like. Then I sent it to my agent, who gave me some editing notes. Then, when my agent became my publisher and editor, he sent the manuscript to a professional proofreader ahead of formatting it for publication. So I had a lot of editing help, all of which benefitted the book and which I’m very grateful for. Composing a novel might be a solitary process, but editing and publishing is very much a team effort for me, and I believe it’s better that way.
What’s your next project?
I’ve just finished the first draft of a novella set in Berlin in July 1932 against the backdrop of the Papen putsch – in other words, the long game that ended with the Nazi takeover in Jan 1933. It’s about how two detectives try to solve the murder of a young SA member with the streets about to erupt in violence, police ranks riddled with Nazi sympathisers and the federal government itching to take control of the Berlin police force. I’ve just had comments back from my first readers, so I now I need to roll my sleeves up and get down to some series editing…
A print version of ‘The Killing of Emma Gross’ will be available in the summer of 2013, published by Five Leaves.