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Saturday 4 February 2023

Sylt Abyss: An island of Contrasts and Crime (but only in Crime novels) by Sabine Weiss


Fine sandy beaches, roaring surf, wind-blown dunes, reflecting mudflats. Plus, star-rated restaurants, exclusive boutiques, chic hotels. All this is Sylt.

Comprising ninety-nine square kilometres, the island of Sylt clings like a slender fishhook to the northernmost end of Germany. It is the fourth largest island in Germany and the biggest island in the North Sea. Sylt thrives on contrasts: enchanting nature reserve by the sea and luxurious retreat, resort for sick children and spa guests, for the rich and the famous alike. There are villages like Morsum where Frisian traditions are still upheld, Danish-style harbour towns like List, street canyons in the island's capital Westerland and much more.

Sports enthusiasts love the island, and the surfing elite takes to the surf at the Windsurf World Cup regularly. For golfers, there are four courses, including Budersand, voted Germany's most popular golf course. Sylt is considered the island of the rich, because for a thatched-roof villa in Kampen you might pay as much as twenty million euros. That's why Sylt is often referred to as the German Long Island, although even fans consider the comparison with the American Hamptons to be overstated. But after all, "Star Wars" star Ewan McGregor shot Roman Polanski's "Ghost Writer" on Sylt, and Liverpool coach Jürgen Klopp, among others, has a villa here. Nature lovers also get their money's worth: while the people of Sylt used to earn their money as whalers, harbour porpoises and seals off the coast are now strictly protected and bird migration is a popular spectacle.

Gisa Pauly
Given this wealth of facets, it is hardly surprising that the barren island with its landscape of dunes, beaches and heather is popular with artists and writers. In the posh town of Kampen, a top-class literary summer is celebrated every year. For some years now, crime writers have also discovered Sylt for themselves. Several crime series of the major German print publishers are set on Sylt. The best-known of them is the humorous Mamma Carlotta series by Gisa Pauly, which regularly storms the bestseller lists and now numbers sixteen volumes. In these books, a spirited Italian woman interferes in the investigations of her
Frisian taciturn son-in-law.

Eva Ehley's trio of detectives Winterberg, Blanck and Kreuzer will soon be
investigating in their tenth case. The author relies on sympathetic investigators and thrills. 

So far, I've written seven crime novels set on Sylt. My detective Liv Lammers was born on Sylt, but she left the island and her family when she became pregnant as a teenager. In Schwarze Brandung (Black Surf) Liv returns to Sylt as a Flensburg homicide investigator – a homeland with which she has a love-hate relationship.

The Anna Bergmann series, in which author Sibylle Narberhaus sends a landscape architect on a murder hunt, Sibylle Narberhaus comprises six volumes. The undercover agent Kari Blom has also investigated six times in Bent Krist Tomasson's novels. Bodo Manstein has had an island painter and journalist investigate Sylt three times so far. The bestselling author and native of Sylt Dora Heldt sent her cosy pensioner investigators on the hunt for criminals twice. A gang of seagulls also has to deal with criminal machinations in two books by Sina Beerwald, an author who lives on
Sylt – "Glenkill" sends their regards. 

In addition to smaller series, there are various stand-alone’s of suspense literature that use the setting. But the Sylt crime novel is also a big seller among self-publishers. For example, Thomas Herzberg's series, published by Books on Demand with the subtitle "Hannah Lambert ermittelt" ("Hannah Lambert Investigates"), is said to be one of the most successful crime series of recent years, with over six hundred thousand copies sold, according to Amazon. On television, the Sylt crime series Nord Nord Mord (North North Murder) is a viewer magnet.

But how criminal is Sylt really? "Sylt is safe," Christian Wiege, former head of the Sylt CID emphasises. Capital crimes have a scarcity value. The last homicide, a relationship crime, was committed in 2014 and a fatal knife attack in a refugee home in 2015; a floater who washed up in the same year was a natural death, as the autopsy revealed. Most of Sylt's CID's cases involve property crimes such as fraud, burglaries and sexual offences. Prostitution also exists, especially in the form of escort services. Drug trafficking particularly affects the party scene. On the other hand, despite the many luxury cars - the Porsche density is extremely high, but Bentley and Aston Martin are also represented in large numbers - there are virtually no car thefts. The main reason for this is the Hindenburg Dam that connects Sylt with the mainland and makes it impossible to escape inconspicuously.

There is a police station on Sylt including a criminal investigation department and in summer the so-called bathing police are also deployed. In the case of crimes against life, the homicide division of the Flensburg police department is in charge. The responsible forensics are located in Kiel. However, the journey takes several hours because the Hindenburg Dam can only be used by train or a car-carrying train, which is why the Sylt CID takes the first strike. There are even cells in the basement of the police building, the former district court, a striking brick building opposite the station.

In one respect, Sylt has a special position in contrast to the rest of the Nordfriesland district: "When a crime happens on Sylt, the press looks closely. Every car accident can result in a nationwide coverage," former police press officer Matthias Glamann says, because many people love Sylt. With over 4.1 million tourist overnight stays, the island once again was one of Germany's most popular destinations in 2021. This popularity also has its
drawbacks. Gentrification is a big issue as many Sylt residents can no longer afford to live on their own island. That is why five thousand five hundred people commute from the mainland every day. The island has only about eighteen thousand inhabitants left, but there is an extremely large number of holiday home owners, which means that there are ghost villages in winter, some schools as well as the maternity ward had to close, and the volunteer fire departments are struggling with recruitment problems.

In popular culture, the band "Die Ärzte" made fun of the snobby Sylt fans with their hit song "Westerland." In the summer of 2022, Sylt, the bogeyman of capitalism, was overrun by punks. But in the end, it is precisely this
mixture and the associated potential for conflict that will continue to inspire crime writers. There are plenty of Sylt abysses to explore.

Sabine Weiss, like many people from Hamburg, was sent to a recreation home on Sylt as a child. Since then, she has visited the island again and again. In 2017, Schwarze Brandung (Black Surf), the first volume of her Sylt crime series, was published. Her favourite place to be is in a campervan on one of the island's many campsites. Sabine Weiß has been writing historical novels since 2007. Her first two books dealt with the life story of Madame Tussaud, on whose trail she travelled through England, Ireland, Scotland and France. After these great successes, many more historical novels from her pen were published. At the end of 2022, Blossom of Time was published, in which she focuses on William III of Orange, later king of England, and the art of gardening. In Zornige Flut, (Angry Flood,) her inspector Liv Lammers will investigate on Sylt for the eighth time in 2023.

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