Detectives and road sweepers

I’ve written a lot about British attitudes towards the Germans, but what, I hear you ask, were the Germans writing about the Brits? Since my early posts when I was struggling to find anything, I’ve stumbled across a bunch of German novels, films and television programmes that are all to do with Britain.

Butler Parker, British detective created by Günther Dönges, was never seen without his trusty bowler hat and black umbrella.

Butler Parker, British detective created by Günther Dönges, was never seen without his trusty bowler hat and black umbrella.

The genre is crime and the settings are Sherlock Holmes-esque foggy London streets and quaint English villages reminiscent of Miss Marple stories.The detectives all wear bowler hats, carry umbrellas and drink copious amounts of tea, and the villains are East End fraudsters or snooty aristocrats.

German readers, cinema-goers and TV audiences loved these stories. So much so that between 1959 and 1965, an astonishing twenty-four film adaptations of Edgar Wallace novels were made. Who’s he, you’re wondering? Wallace was one of Britain’s most prolific and popular crime writers in the 1920s and 30s. By the 1950s British readers thought his plots, characters and settings old-fashioned and his works soon disappeared from libraries and bookshops.

But these novels epitomised all that German audiences sought and loved in 1950s crime fictions. Eccentric aristocrats, Dickensian rogues and dotty old ladies, along with shady Thames-side warehouses and thatched countryside cottages – an England that only ever existed in the imaginations of Britain’s crime writers but one that captivated post-war Germany.

Eddi Arent, who played the Jeeves-like butler, in a similar role in another Edgar Wallace film.

Eddi Arent, who played the Jeeves-like butler, in a similar role in another Edgar Wallace film.

The directors even added extra nostalgic details: a comic Jeeves-like butler, a young dashing detective heir to a great fortune, oversized portraits of the Queen adorning the walls of Scotland Yard offices, and additional lords and ladies at every turn.

The Wallace films proved so popular that many other similar films were made in the early 1960s – similar plots, characters, music and cinematography. Several TV series in the same genre also appeared and became known as Straβenfeger or ‘road sweepers’ for their ability to clear the streets of people when they were broadcast. They were watched by up to 90% of the West German TV-owning population! (That’s compared to around 20% of the UK who watched the last series of Downton Abbey… hardly a Straβenfeger!)

British crime fiction had been popular in Germany since the 1920s when all things England-related acquired a new fashionable status. Masses of English crime novels were translated and enjoyed by millions of Germans. The Nazis were so concerned that these novels were acting as propaganda, popularising “British institutions and the British way of life” (according to an official government report), that they were banned!

Their resurgence after the war is hardly surprising. These novels (and their film and TV adaptations) allowed their readers to retreat to a time and place far from their own. A time and place where murderers and fraudsters were hunted down and eliminated, and order restored. A time and place far from post-war Germany where questions of crime, guilt and punishment were in no way limited to fictional contexts. Where each and every German was being forced to contemplate their own guilt or responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis. Where mass murderers were still at large and seekers of justice thin on the ground.

Crime stories set in romanticised Britain offered a refuge. The German reader could hate the villains and cheer the heroes without having to ask themselves which category they belonged to.

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Rubble and walls

I realised very soon after uploading my last post that I made a fairly large generalisation about characters in novels that any discerning reader (let alone my old undergraduate English tutor) would baulk at.

I said that characters are usually extraordinary in some way, anomalies, not representative of real persons from the character’s national, religious or professional group. Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon isn’t your average Harvard professor; Fleming’s Dr No isn’t your everyday Chinese man.

But I realise my views have been somewhat skewed by my recent reading material – mostly popular 1950s crime and detective novels filled with larger than life, if not stereotyped, characters. (Le Carré’s nuanced characters and complex plots were still several years off.)

There are of course many novelists, “popular” and more “literary” (whatever those terms mean), who aim to portray ordinary (rather than extra-ordinary) characters – from James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones.

That fact acknowledged, I feel I can safely return to my crime novels, populated as they are with characters far from the ordinary.

For even if, as I concluded last time, readers realise that such characters aren’t representative of their nation or other group, those characters exist within a setting that we perhaps accept as a closer reflection of reality.

Most of us dismiss Dan Brown’s plots and characters as fantastical, but you can be sure he researched the details of the Louvre, the Vatican and his novels’ other settings extensively.

For a novel to remain earthbound amidst outlandish plot twists and freakishly good or evil characters, the places they inhabit must be believable. And the surest way to make something believable is by basing it closely on reality.

The same argument applies to other media too. We hope that the events and characters muppetsin the Netflix series House of Cards are fantasy, but the settings – the White House, the Capitol, the back streets of Washington DC and so on – are sure to be meticulously reproduced. The 2011 Muppets film is pure escapism, but the LA setting is real.

Despite the extra-ordinary nature of the Germans (whether evil Nazi or anomalous good German) that feature in many post-war British crime novels, the places they inhabit are distinctly ordinary.

Many of these novels were written by men and women who were in Germany in the late 1940s as part of the British occupation. They saw the ruinous conditions first-hand – cities turned to rubble, a thriving black market, a moral and political vacuum.

The literary-minded among them saw the potential of these places – as the perfect setting for a crime novel. The post-war years spawned heaps of them.

The idea of Germany, especially Berlin, as the setting for this genre of novel was incredibly successful. So much so that writers such as Manning Coles were still churning them out well into the 1950s, by which time the rubble was mostly cleared, currency reform had quashed the black market, and German politicians were (mostly) proving themselves admirable leaders.

For the average reader of popular novels, however, the image of Germany remained associated with ruin, backwardness and a criminal underworld. This would only begin to be replaced in the 1960s by the Berlin Wall and its peripheral elements – watchtowers, barbed wire and armed guards. Not exactly a more positive image.

It was perhaps Germany’s bad luck that a British obsession with crime and spy fiction coincided with two post-war decades of upheaval and cold conflict in Germany. A writer needed to look no further than Britain’s former enemy nation for the perfect setting. And I’m sure many British readers were glad to see that former nation now struggling with a new set of demons.

Sadly, it meant that the real story of post-war Germany – re-building and re-educating – was lost in an obsession with the criminal potential of rubble and walls.