I’ve just been to hear Klaus-Peter Wolf reading from his latest novel at my local bookshop. Wolf is best known for a series set in the far north western coastal region of East Friesland, whose central figure is Hauptkommissarin Ann Kathrin Claasen. Luckily for me, his work is highly readable, with relatively (for German) short sentences, lots of humour, and enjoyable plotting.
Several things strike me about the Claasen series. First, Claasen typifies a trend in German crime fiction, much of which has a female as the main detective. Some commentators have observed that you are much more likely to encounter a female Hauptkommissarin in fiction than in reality.
Second, the series is firmly rooted in its region. Indeed, I thought Wolf’s latest novel went overboard in contrasting the close, decent and upright communities of East Friesland with the freetic, atomised peoples of the cities (exemplified in this novel by an ambitious and ruthless reporter, who is promptly killed off).
It’s not just Wolf and East Friesland. Most German cities and regions have their own local crime writers, just as each of regional broadcaster contributes its own locale and detectives to the long-running series Tatort. Perhaps this local focus and identity in crime fiction is one more hangover from the many local states and principalities that were pushed and pulled into a Prussianised Germany in the late 1860s.
Third, though, is the role of adult education. When the principal criminal is hunting down a victim in the small town of Emden, he enrols in an adult education class at the local Volkshochschule. He studies alongside his victim before abducting her from the car park, after which detectives question her fellow classmates and the Volkshochschule principal.
Back in the real world, staff at Emden VHS seem to have embraced their fictional infamy. Far from worrying that their reputation had been stained by a vile crime, they invited the author to read from his book, accompanied by music from his wife Bettina Göschl.
This made me wonder whether and how adult learning generally features in fiction. It might be a natural location in Germany, where adult education centres are everywhere (there is a large one ten minutes’ walk away from where I live), but what about writers in other countries? I’m aware of Maeve Binchy’s novel The Evening Class, set in a Dublin suburb and apparently often discussed by reading groups, but I can’t think of other novels that feature adult learners.
I can’t help but think that British crime writers like Ian Rankin and Val McDermid have so far missed a trick. Adult courses can be filled with suppressed intrigue, they sometimes make people frustrated with their circumstances, and they have been known to provoke jealousy from spouses and even children.An ideal setting for murder and mayhem, then.
Yet how many murders are linked – in fiction, of course – to adult courses? Is fictional mayhem in adult education a positive indicator of a learning society? And what about the shift to digital learning – can you actually murder someone in a MOOC?