We do love our whodunnits, even today.
I confess to a penchant for those forensic pathology novels, Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornell and so forth. There is something about re-enacting death, a macabre reassurance that one is, oneself, very much alive.
It has ever been thus.
You will be familiar with the notion of a ballad; verse set to music, popular at least since mediaeval times, the staple of folk music in the UK and much, much farther afield.
There is said to be a sub-genre of this tried and tested favourite. It is called The Murder Ballad.
It’s a set of verses about a murder, dealing with weapons and perpetrators and victims and motives in colourful rhyme, and often sung in those places where the clientele could not write, though they could listen and join in.
Think Child Owlet, latterly immortalised by folk group Steeleye Span, an ancient yarn involving a noblewoman who, unable to seduce her nephew, stabs herself with a little penknife and tells her noble Lord the young man did it. The irate Lord conjures a spectacular end for the wrongly accused, and those of you with strong stomachs may read about it here.
Or listen to Mary Hamilton: a song about the four Marys chosen by the Queen of Scot’s mother to be her companions. In reality there was never a Mary Hamilton; their names were Marys Beaton, Seton, Fleming and Livingston.
The song relates how Mary Hamilton cuckolds the Queen of Scots, producing a child which the queen drowns.
There are many more in the same vein: gruesome entertainment for the masses.
And one of the more modern made its debut in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, known as “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer”.
Roughly translated: Mack The Knife.
Brecht’s original lyrics are darker by far than the ones we know, more sinister; and the words of a master storyteller. Beside the tales of unspeakable atrocities are these words, translated by Hildegarde Knef:
“And some are in the darkness
And the others in the light
But you only see those in the light
Those in the darkness you don’t see…”
The opera, and this iconic Weimar Republic ballad, premiered in Berlin, in 1928, at the Theatre Am Schiffbauerdamm.
Three years later, a man walked into a Berlin bar.
“Today I’m here,” he announced jovially, “to celebrate a trick I pulled.”
This was Erich Mielke. He was a member of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), and its band of muscle – the Party Self Defence Unit. They were thugs. And they hated police.
In particular, a widower with three daughters: a police chief who was a thorn in the side of the KPD. Captain Paul Anlauf had the organisation’s headquarters on his patch. He had been nicknamed ‘Pig Face’ by the Defence Unit. Mielke was a journalist for the KPD paper: but he was prepared to carry out orders to shoot Anlauf.
It was outside the Babylon Cinema that someone shouted “Pig Face!” and,as the policeman turned to look, Mielke and a fellow Unit member opened fire at point-blank range, ending two lives.
Celebration in a bar was short-lived: he was ordered to flee to Moscow. A shadowy figure, he had just the right qualities to recommend himself to the Russian Military School and later the Secret Police. During World War II, his movements are not clear but he emerged, highly decorated, to be placed at the deputy head of Kommissariat 5: the first German secret police since the Nazis.
A murderer, hated and feared, he thrived in communist East Germany.
But all bad things come to an end.
Do you remember where you were when the Wall came down? I suspect this erstwhile Mack the Knife watched its bricks tumble with unease.
He resigned his position as a member of the Council of Ministers of the GDR on NOvember 7, 1989, along with the rest of the council. They could see the times were a-changing.
Six days later he tried to talk once more to Parliament. He addressed them as ‘Comrades.’
It was like a red rag to a bull after the years of cruelty and repression. Many onlookers objected strenuously. And rather than capitulate, he uttered words which have since become timeless, coming, as they were, from the mouth of a veritable Mack The Knife.
“But I love- I love all – all people,” he stammered.
The people’s chamber went crazy. Fear had lost its dominion: Mack’s power had crumbled in the same hands which had taken who knew how many lives.
He was subsequently tried and convicted of the murder of those two policemen, back in the laissez-faire days of the Weimar Republic.
For so long we couldn’t see him for the darkness, as Brecht would have said.
But he got his come uppance, did this Mack the Knife, in the end.