W&M lecturer explores complex world of German detectives

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 Tack Faculty lecturer Bruce Campbell discusses why The Detective is [not] a Nazi with W&M videographer and multimedia producer Hunter Hall. (Stephen Salpukas/W&M News)
Tack Faculty lecturer Bruce Campbell discusses why The Detective is [not] a Nazi with W&M videographer and multimedia producer Hunter Hall. (Stephen Salpukas/W&M News)

Bruce Campbell employed many of the attributes of a great detective to embark on a path of study – German pulp fiction – that has occupied the past 15 years of a sterling academic career since coming to William & Mary.

Campbell, associate professor of German studies at the university, will share the most intriguing aspects of that under-appreciated, under-publicized genre as the Tack Faculty Series lecturer on Oct. 27 at 7 p.m.in the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium. Those planning to attend are requested to RSVP.

A generous commitment by Martha ’78 and Carl Tack ’78 established the Tack Faculty Lecture Series, which invites a celebration of faculty excellence. Through this series, a William & Mary professor addresses the community on a topic of general interest at least once a semester.

“The Detective is [not] a Nazi” is the title of Campbell’s lecture, and while the reason for that might seem obvious to some, Campbell said the answer has many layers that involve haunting memories and angst.

Campbell’s interest in the topic began in conjunction with his reading detective fiction penned by the late Richard Hey (pronounced ree-CARD High). Hey’s main character, Katharina Ledermacher, was different from other American and British detectives Campbell had enjoyed through the years. Ledermacher was the first female police inspector in German detective fiction. Her initial case, the murder of an old man, involved a former Nazi judge who uses his legal knowledge to ultimately evade justice.

But what separated the novel from what Campbell was accustomed to reading was the fact that Ledermacher eschewed her boss’s insistence on using force to obtain confessions. Instead she plumbed her background as a ward in a children’s home to eventually uncover the real culprit, ignoring more “obvious” suspects.

“It was probably while reading him that I got the notion that there was something going on here,” Campbell said, “that German detective fiction was different from Anglo-American detective novels in really interesting ways.”

Some of the German pulp fiction that Tack Faculty lecturer Bruce Campbell has spent 15 years dissecting. ( Stephen Salpukas/W&M News)
Some of the German pulp fiction that Tack Faculty lecturer Bruce Campbell has spent 15 years dissecting. ( Stephen Salpukas/W&M News)

The question was why? Rough-hewn, punch-first-ask-questions-later detectives have ruled the genre everywhere since coming into being. Why would that turn off German readers? Campbell began to dig through the clues, many of which had been overlooked for years.

“Detective fiction has to do with truth and justice. It has to do with the police,” Campbell said. “But in the very recent German past – during the Third Reich – the police played a central role in carrying out the Holocaust. They were not only arresting people, they were killing people in large numbers.

“Germans can’t read a novel centered on a detective of some kind – and in Germany that means a police detective – without thinking about the past. If you’re going to ask German readers to identify with a fictional detective, you’ve got to make sure they know that the detective is not a Nazi.”

German authors got around the problem in many ways. One was to simply set their novels in the U.S. or Britain, and pretend not to be German at all.

“After the war a number of authors took on American or British-sounding pseudonyms,” Campbell said. “That was their way of separating themselves from the Nazi past.”

In the 1960s, German authors brought their characters and their cases back home. Even then, non-conformity ruled. There were women like Ledermacher, “magic” mushrooms, cats, gay people and grandfathers.

Campbell said the influence exerted by the United States, Great Britain and France cannot be overstated.

“You look at the biographies of the leading writers of German, Austrian and Swiss detective fiction; they spent a year in an American high school,” Campbell said. “They studied at American or British universities. They studied at French universities. They’ve read [Raymond] Chandler in the original. They’ve walked the mean streets of L.A. That has been very important for them.”

There is much more to the conundrum that is German pulp fiction, as Campbell will reveal on Oct. 27 in Commonwealth Auditorium.