Jumpers at the ready: The Killing is back

<em>Forbrydelsen</em>, along with other Scandi whodunits, harks back to a more artful age of crime d

ITV once announced the comeback of Columbo by playing Mark Morrison's Return of the Mac -- a whole detective represented by a crumpled old raincoat. This weekend, a similarly feted piece of clothing returns to our screens -- along with the sleuth who inhabits it -- as Danish detective Sarah Lund reappears in the iconic Faroese jumper for series two of The Killing (Forbrydelsen), starting Saturday on BBC4.

I should state at this point that this is in no way going to be an objective piece of writing. I write as an unashamed fan. I absolutely loved the first series of The Killing, and I've been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the second. As luck would have it, I'm away in Copenhagen (pretending to stalk Troels Hartmann in the town hall) this weekend, but I'll make sure I catch up during the week.

What's so great about this latest piece of Scandi Crime fiction? Are we just interested in our Nordic cousins meandering around because it seems foreign and cerebral to us; a notch up from Midsomer Murders or the standard detective shows on our major channels? As someone once said to me, there are probably Scandinavians sitting down to a subtitled episode of New Tricks, marvelling at Dennis Waterman's subtle characterisation and the psychological pacing of the drama. But I think it goes beyond that: the Scandi shows like Wallander and The Killing hark back to a more exciting, more artful age of crime drama.

Look back at an old episode of Bergerac, for example, and you'll find the pacing is so different. Fires in the Fall, the fabled creepy Christmas special of 1986 is well worth a look (though don't watch it right before going to bed) for several reasons. The plot really takes time to get going, almost as if you're not going to turn it over after 10 seconds if you get bored. As well as that, shows went 30 or 40 minutes before anyone even got killed; it seems John Nettles had a lot less death to deal with in Jersey than he does in Midsomer, where the corpses stack up before every ad break.

What The Killing's first series combined, over 20 hour-long episodes, was a whodunit with a drama about the effect of the crime on those who were left behind, along with a political thriller. It was like 24, but without the torture porn and the need for explosions. No mean feat for a bit of Sunday night telly, but there it was. We had time to learn about the various suspects and characters, to rule them out and then think they might have done it after all. Who knew? No one knew. Even the actors didn't know.

Unusually, The Killing is written as the series is filmed, with the main writers taking account of the actors' interpretations and including them in future episodes. It's this relationship between actors and their characters that makes it feel like a real collaborative effort -- plus no one knew who would be the killer or whether they would live or die until they got the next script, so they were as much in the dark as we, the audience were.

Catch the first series if you can, but keep your head down and don't mention it to anyone who might have seen it; you won't want the revelation of the killer and the noir-heavy denouement spoiled for you, that's for sure. Best to just lock yourself away.

At the heart of Forbrydelsen was and is Sarah Lund, the flawed detective played by Sofie Grabol. If The Killing had been set in England, you just know Lund would have been a ballbreaker or a bitch, power-dressed and full of that ghastly "feistiness" that all female leads are forced to have nowadays. But no: instead, the protagonist is quite passive, almost annoyingly so at times, thinking rather than articulating. She's not even brilliantly deductive: like Morse, she gets to the truth by simply wearing it down. What she has, above all, is patience and persistence -- the kind of qualities that are rewarded with this kind of superior crime drama.

So, jumpers at the ready. Series 2 is here. Just don't tell me who did it, or there'll be a real crime.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge