Review: The Ghosts of Altona by Craig Russell

Posted by Matt Foley on July 14, 2015 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , , ,

Craig Russell, The Ghosts of Altona (Quercus: London, 2015)

by Matt Foley

ghosts of altMany of the nascent forms of detective fiction are well-known to be highly Gothicized, whether they be considered to be Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin stories, Charles Dickens’ plots of criminality, or the predilection of Victorian sensation fictions – typified, for instance, by the novels of Wilkie Collins – to unveil hidden injustices. The figure of the detective, surely, fundamentally rejects coincidence and chance. They instead seek to apply the logic of causation to even the most opaque of effects. Scottish crime writer Craig Russell, then, was certainly astute and reasoned in posting a copy of his new novel The Ghosts of Altona to Stirling Gothic. This latest addition to the successful Hamburg-set Jan Fabel series – some of which has already been adapted for television in Germany – is both Gothic in content and in execution. Russell’s writing will certainly appeal to those familiar with the fictions of Ian Rankin and Christopher Brookmyre but Altona proves also to be an intelligent romp for students and scholars of the darker arts.

‘Intelligent romp’, as an epithet, may seem paradoxical, but I’m keen to emphasise that Russell imbues his writing with both an enjoyment and a philosophical edge that arises out of the plot’s particularly Gothic exploration of a number of individual and societal crises. After a near-death encounter with a brutal child murderer in Altona’s opening scenes, Fabel, as Head of the Polizei Hamburg’s Murder Commission, has to wrestle throughout the narrative with the complex impasses that arise when one is living after experiencing death. After Fabel’s shooting, we move forward two years to find him face-to-face with a very personal return of the repressed. Jan, recuperated it seems from his trauma, is informed that the remains of Monika Krone, his first missing-person case that dates back some fifteen years, have been discovered.

It is immediately apparent that it is Fabel’s fallibility that most strikingly colours his characterisation as well as his passion for the lessons of history: a subject which he studied before joining the police force, with law enforcement being a career which his deep sense of justice ultimately compelled him towards. Our detective is soon investigating a series of fresh murders that must, he feels, be linked to the discovery of Krone’s remains. We soon discover that there is a link between the victims. Each at university had held a serious scholarly appreciation of the Gothic. Monika Krone, it seems, had been part of this distinctly Gothic set (or cult?) before she was murdered.

So, for readers of the Gothic, there is an immediate sense of familiarity in Russell’s many allusions to the Gothic tradition (indeed we realise the nods to Dorian Gray just as quickly as Fabel does). There are, too, some of Russell’s own contemporary Gothic creations on display, for example, in one particular imagining of a freak-villain who resembles Frankenstein’s creature. These allusions and creations – and this by no means demeans the execution – contribute to a sense of textual play that runs through many of the novel’s more menacing scenes. On occasion this does lead to bathetic set-pieces or overwrought emotions. These are not faults, per se, but more a consequence of playing with the Gothic mode so liberally.  Such play is balanced with several intellectually rewarding meditations upon Cotard disorder, Schrödinger’s cat, the spaces in-between life and death, the Gothic as an experiential point of view, and the intertwining of the macabre and the hallucinogenic. The Ghosts of Altona, then, is ultimately an intellectually rewarding read; one that is highly aware of the crime genre to which it belongs and, certainly, as a consequence, it proves a page-turner. It is an intriguing novel that may very easily fulfill the role of a summer read for students, scholars and enthusiasts of the Gothic. Surely, it can’t be a coincidence that a copy of Altona arrived mysteriously on my desk to punctuate a rather malign Scottish July afternoon. . .

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