The Murder Farm
Andrea Maria Schenkel
Translated by Anthea Bell
Quercus, June 2014
From the publisher—
The Murder Farm begins with a shock: a whole family has been murdered with a pickaxe. They were old Danner the farmer, an overbearing patriarch; his put-upon devoutly religious wife; and their daughter Barbara Spangler, whose husband Vincenz left her after fathering her daughter little Marianne. She also had a son, two-year-old Josef, the result of her affair with local farmer Georg Hauer after his wife’s death from cancer. Hauer himself claimed paternity. Also murdered was the Danners’ maidservant, Marie.
An unconventional detective story, The Murder Farm is an exciting blend of eyewitness account, third-person narrative, pious diatribes, and incomplete case file that will keep readers guessing. When we leave the narrator, not even he knows the truth, and only the reader is able to reach the shattering conclusion.
If someone were to ask me for a list of depressing books, I’d be hardpressed not to put The Murder Farm at the top of that list. Rarely have I come across a story in which I universally disliked every single character, no matter how insignificant, and this fictional recreation of an unsolved mass murder that actually occurred serves only to demonstrate how uncaring people can be, simply because they can’t be bothered to get involved.
The author won first place in the German Crime Prize for The Murder Farm and the Friedrich-Glauser Prize as well as garnered plenty of admiring reviews and I have to say I have conflicting feelings about it getting so much praise. I’m not actually sure why Ms. Schenkel chose to write about this particular crime or why she elected to change it’s occurrence to the mid-fifties instead of the 20’s when it really happened. Both periods are post-war but does the author find more significance in the aftermath of World War II than than that of World War I? It doesn’t seem so as the characters spend very little time or energy reflecting on the war. I also don’t know why an unsolved crime meant more to the author than one that had been neatly tied up. Was it because she wanted to highlight the villagers’ behavior rather than the crime itself?
Constantly changing POV and tense—3rd person singular present and 1st person singular past tense—keep the narrative on edge as does the reader’s growing sense that something is wrong, something beyond the bare facts of the horrific crime. This “something” is the crux of what makes this tale so depressing, the notion that absolutely no one who knew the victims cared, not one little iota, not even when they sensed in earlier times that a different sort of horrific crime was already happening. All those who noticed chose to do precisely nothing about it.
In today’s world, we’re not terribly surprised when people see or hear a crime and don’t even bother to call 911 so similar behavior in this story is certainly not unheard of. The real shocker, to me, is that an entire village could be so callous for so many years all because no one wanted to upset the applecart, so to speak. Perhaps that’s because they were just too emotionally worn out by the war?
Whatever the case may be, I won’t read this again because I’ve been depressed enough by one reading but The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel will undoubtedly stick in my mind for a long, long while. Perhaps anyone with the slightest interest in the human psyche would do well to take a hard look at this crime and all its underpinnings.
Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, June 2014.