Detecting the past: detective fiction, Nazi crimes and Holocaust (im)piety

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    Crime writing is not often associated with Holocaust representations, yet an emergent trend, especially in German literature, combines a general, popular interest in crime and detective fiction with historical writing about the Holocaust, or critically engages with the events of the Shoah. Particularly worthy of critical investigation are Bernhard Schlink’s series of detective novels focusing on private investigator Gerhard Selb, a man with a Nazi background now investigating other people’s Nazi pasts, and Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case (2011) which engages with the often inadequate response of the post-war justice system in Germany to Nazi crimes. In these novels, the detective turns historian in order to solve historic cases. Importantly, readers also follow in the detectives’ footsteps, piecing together a slowly emerging historical jigsaw in ways that compel them to question historical knowledge, history writing, processes of institutionalised commemoration and memory formation, all of which are key issues in Holocaust Studies. The aims of this paper are twofold. Firstly, I will argue that the significance of this kind of fiction has been insufficiently recognised by critics, perhaps in part because of its connotations as popular fiction. Secondly, I will contend that these texts can be fruitfully analysed by situating them in relation to recent debates about pious and impious Holocaust writing as discussed by Gillian Rose and Matthew Boswell. As a result, these texts act as exemplars of Rose’s contention that impious Holocaust literature succeeds by using new techniques in order to shatter the emotional detachment that has resulted from the use of clichés and familiar tropes in traditional pious accounts; and by placing detectives and readers in a position of moral ambivalence that complicates their understanding of the past on the one hand, and their own moral position on the other.
    Original languageEnglish
    Article number70
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - 7 Dec 2019


    • Holocaust Literature
    • Detective Fiction
    • Holocaust Impiety
    • Bernhard Schlink
    • Ferdinand von Schirach


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