After being thoroughly impressed with The Dark Meadow by Andrea Maria Schenkel last year I decided to treat myself to another of her slim novels. The Murder Farm is a recreation of a real crime in which the Gruber household were murdered in 1922. Having researched the details of this unsolved crime following my reading of the book it is clear that the author hasn’t strayed far from the known facts about the murders although she has chosen to set it in a slightly later time period.
In 1950’s Germany The Murder Farm was home to the Danner family which consisted of the stern patriarch and farmer and his equally stand-offish wife. Their daughter Barbara Spengler was also slain along with her daughter Marianne and her baby son, Josef. It wasn’t only the family who lost their lives that night, the brand new maid Maria was also killed. Scarily the alarm wasn’t raised until the inhabitants of the village realised they hadn’t been seen since the previous Saturday and so a couple of their neighbours went to investigate, the scene that awaited them defied belief. Despite being viewed as remote and odd, there was no obvious reason why someone would choose to slay the entire household, or was there?
Our nameless narrator returns to the village near the Black Mountains to try and discover what really happened;
“My village had become the home of ‘the murder farm’ and I couldn’t get the story out of my mind. With mixed feelings, I went back. The people I met there were very willing to tell me about the crime. To talk to a stranger who was nonetheless familiar with the place. Someone who wouldn’t stay, would listen, and then go away again.”
The story is told in a similar format to that of The Dark Meadow, with excerpts from the villager’s recall of the events, so we get to hear from one of Marianne’s school friends, a former employer of the maid, her sister, Marianne’s school teacher, a mechanic, the shopkeeper, the local farmers and the priest slowly building a picture of the characters within the household along with some of the local gossip that they ‘reluctantly’ revealed. What is really appealing about this device is that each person recalling the day has a clear personality and I could only wonder at how the author pulled this off in so few words, a lesson indeed to some authors who seem to think that more words makes for a better read!
I think I’m getting tired. I fancy a nap now. A person needs a lot of sleep when she gets old, you know. Many old people can’t sleep, but me, I need a lot of sleep. I always did like my sleep.
Oh, now what was it you were asking me? I’ve quite forgotten, dear me, it’s old age, you know. You were asking me about Marie. Yes, yes, Marie. She was a good girl, Marie was, willing and hard-working.
In addition to the recall of their neighbours we also get to hear from some of the victims too. So gradual is the way the details are revealed both in the background and the discovery of the murder scene, that it is not until the very end that it becomes clear who committed the awful crime and why.
This is a very impressive read although because I’d read The Dark Meadow the format wasn’t as fresh this time, it did work well in this context. The translator should Anthea Bell deserves a special mention for her work as this is an immensely readable book and apart from the names I soon forgot that the original was in German. I will be looking out for more books by this author.