German crime novels and high blood pressure

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Don't jump to any conclusions based on the title.  This post is not about how reading German crime novels raises blood pressure.  Quite the contrary, it is about how reading German crime novels dramatically lowers blood pressure, at least for one of my friends.

Most people treat their high blood pressure with one of the following:

Not my friend.  When her blood pressure gets too high, she reaches for a German crime novel.

DISCLAIMER:  I'm not saying that this will work for everyone, though it does for her.  Perhaps it's because of her unique character and unusual background.  So let me tell you a bit about my friend, while protecting her anonymity, which she requested.

The first thing that needs to be said about my friend is that she is bilingual in Mandarin and English, though I think that her English (which is phenomenal) is better than her Mandarin.  She also knows a fair amount of other Sinitic topolects (Cantonese and various non-standard forms of Mandarin).

As a child, although she was initially brought up in a strictly Chinese environment, after that she had an unusual cosmopolitan upbringing in South Asia and East Asia.

I am bilingual in English and Mandarin, though my English is stronger. As to mother-tongue, I spoke Mandarin and some Cantonese up to age 8. But it was only child's language, and I learned very little Mandarin or Cantonese after that—until I was in my forties. I only acquired a decent command of English gradually after age 14, because I was until 19 in places (India, Hong Kong, Taiwan) where English was not the native tongue, and I wasn't in daily contact with a lot of speakers of good English. Thus I felt that both English and Chinese were foreign languages to me, so I always felt I had no mother-tongue.

My friend's experience reminds me of a number of individuals whom I have encountered who essentially had no mother tongue:

"Mother Tongue: lost and found " (12/15/14)

I asked my friend whether, aside from English and all of the Asian languages to which she had been exposed, she also knew French or other languages.

I took French several years in high school, but never applied myself. I can read some French. I studied a bit of Latin on my own for the Ph.D. requirement, which I passed by pretty much memorizing two books of Virgil's Aeneid by sight (using a dual-language text to learn to tell roughly the meaning of each sentence by sight) and had two years of intensive Japanese in graduate school for which I had A's. Also had a year of Spanish and German in university. In recent years I've been brushing up my Japanese, French, and German.

It was at this point that she told me about her affinity with German crime novels.

I've been reading German crime novels recently whenever my blood pressure rises (I remember that you mentioned you read Zhuangzi when you felt stressed), and they miraculously lower my blood pressure at such moments from 145 to 120, and I'm amazed at how many German words are in English, e.g. MEAGER from German MAGER "thin", FRESH (impertinent) from German FRECH "impertinent". But I also see recent borrowing the other way, such as English JOB and BOY imported wholesale into German. (I'm not talking about round-trip here.)

Whereupon I exclaimed:

Wow! Your German is good enough to read them in the original!

To which she replied:

—well, typically I can understand a page of the current German crime novel, with a handful of German words I don't know. Many of the words I understand because I infer from the roots, e.g. Fernseher (far-see) "television". Now, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain in German is harder to read. Larger vocabulary and longer, more complicated sentences—-and rather ponderous.

I asked my friend to tell me a bit more about how she actually reads German novels:

I read the novels in German (there are still some German words I don't understand, but I get the story without looking up the dictionary; some words are obvious from the context).

Just finished Der Nasse Fisch by Volcker Kutscher. Very good, set in Berlin 1920— prostitution, Reich ministers, spies, communism, socialism, Nazism. Also finished Henning Mankell's Die Weiss Loewin (the White Lioness), translated into German from Swedish. Excellent, set in 80-90s South Africa and Sweden, about apartheid, Nelson Mandela, DeKlerk, Soweto, conspirators in Sweden, a Swedish policeman/detective, etc. Also read Mankell's Before the Frost in German —from Jim Jones in Guyana to religious fanaticism in Sweden. Very good. Mankell is Swedish.

My daughter brought over these crime novels from Germany, and I ordered copies for myself.

I asked my friend:

May we say that German crime novels have a greater tendency / capacity to reduce your blood pressure than other types of books, including crime novels in other languages?

She answered:

Actually my blood pressure is also lowered when I study German, French, Latin, or Chinese, all of which I enjoy doing. But each entails a bit of effort—-because there is some repetition and memorization and the texts may not be delicious, whereas reading a crime novel is pure delight, it's delicious, and no effort, and for that reason, seems to lower blood pressure faster than just studying a language. And it keeps me going through pure delicious curiosity or suspense. I don't know why studying or reading a foreign language lowers my blood pressure. Perhaps I was born to study languages, and am at peace and in my element when I do, without my being conscious of this reason. These crime novels by Henning Mankell and Volcker Kutscher in German are best sellers in Germany. Perhaps equally good crime novels in other languages will be just as effective for blood pressure.

When I feel my blood pressure going up, I measure it, and find it has shot up, to 137, or 145, or 155, and then I quickly sit down with my German crime novel, and then after a few minutes measure blood pressure again and find it has come down to 126, 120, or 108, and then after a few minutes I go about my business again. Sometimes I linger longer over the novel than I should. Meditation, visualizing happy experiences, thinking of loved ones, etc. don't work as fast. Sometimes they take much much longer.

My friend said that she was surprised when she discovered that reading crime novels in German had this salutary effect upon her blood pressure.

Both Volcker Kutscher and Henning Mankell's crime novels are available in English. I'm out of new ones in German, so I'm just reading Kutscher's Der Nasse Fisch again to lower my blood pressure when it shoots up (also calms heart-beat).

This is where things stood about two years ago when my friend and I had a long series of e-mail exchanges on this subject.  Recently, however, because of other things having to do with German (e.g., here, here, and here), I was prompted to go back and dig up our old correspondence.  When I told my friend that I had decided to write a post about the extraordinary effect German crime novels have on her well-being, she remarked:

I'd pretty much forgotten what I said, but after re-reading, still stand by it. (I now read German newspapers and Thomas Mann's Der Zauberberg much better, so am beginning to review Japanese grammar, which I enjoy, and is very calming.)

My friend is a truly remarkable person, as much for her linguistic prowess as for her sensitivity in monitoring the hypotensive effect of her reading habits upon her physiology.

[Thanks to Paula Roberts and Linda Greene]



29 Comments

  1. Bathrobe said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 8:07 am

    Not at all surprising. Many years ago, when I was suffering badly from the pangs of a recent breakup, I found that detective stories were the best way to forget my woes, at least for a while. I read them in English, but it doesn't matter what the language is, they are "delicious" — they draw you in and hold your attention, and help you leave the pain of the world behind. Other kinds of fiction just don't cut it. Romances are out (that goes without saying), but so are most novels that have any kind of literary pretensions. Detective stories are THE most gripping painkillers around.

  2. Adelgundis said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 9:10 am

    I'd just like to correct two typos. The author is called Volker Kutscher. And the book by Henning Mankell is called "Die weisse Loewin" (or in German orthography: Die weiße Löwin).

  3. tsts said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 12:28 pm

    Looking at the title, I wondered if this salutary effect was due to the slower pace in German crime stories. Having seen a lot of German and US crime/police TV series, I was always struck by the difference in pace and mood. Most episodes in US series are fast paced, and there is usually a car chase, shootout, or fist fight, even if the suspect is already completely surrounded by police. In the typical German episode, an (often elderly) police detective just goes around drinking coffee and interviewing suspects, and eventually someone breaks and admits they did it. Then they sob and get arrested — no car chase and fist fight. At least that was the general pattern in the 70s and 80s (e.g., Derrick, Der Alte), though in recent years they have added more US-style action.

    The mood is also very different. In the US series, the good guys win, and everybody is happy at the end. In the German series, the mood is very somber, with everyone still grieving about the committed crime and the imperfections of society and man.

  4. Thorin said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 1:53 pm

    I translated Der nasse Fisch into English for a client, and it did the exact opposite for me!

  5. Milan said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 4:57 pm

    @tsts

    Nowadays, the paradigmatic German TV crime series is Tatort, it runs every Sunday on public TV after the news programme. They take 90 minutes to tell story that wouldn't occupy an American programme for half of that time.
    That show, and crime stories in general, are often said to fulfill a rather idiosyncratic role in German culture. They usually deal with some social issue, from drug abuse and violence at school over asylum seekers and Neo-Nazis to social dumping. Despite the somber mood, the general pattern of crime stories reaffirms a sense of order in the face of those conflicts. Many screenwriters actually complain that there is no way to deal with social problems in German TV without a corpse in the beginning and an arrest in the end. Combine that with the occasional tendency to rather blatantly convey "educative facts" about the issue at hand, and you understand why Tatort hasn't got the best reputation with the younger generation of series aficionados, who prefer foreign productions either of the more unabashedly entertaining, or the more complex kind.

  6. Chris C. said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 5:06 pm

    She reads German crime novels the same way I used to read Asterix comics after two years of high school French.

  7. Guy said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 6:30 pm

    What you describe (taking "topical" social issues and giving them heavy-handed and simplistic treatments) sounds like the modus operandi of the show Law & Order here in the United States.

  8. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 6:53 pm

    While this is interesting, on the evidence given here I don't think we can rule out a more prosaic explanation (emphasis added):

    […]I quickly sit down with my German crime novel[…]and then after a few minutes I go about my business again.

    So maybe the fact that they're crime novels, or that they're written in German, matters less than simply taking a moment to relax and set aside one's obligations. On this view, the novels as such are not the cause of your friend's lower blood pressure, but merely her chosen instrument of distraction.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 6:57 pm

    In the o.p., I referred to "the hypotensive effect" of reading German crime novels upon my friend. My nephew, who is in pharmacy, tells me that the class of drugs that treat high blood pressure are also called "antihypertensives".

  10. Victor Mair said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 7:18 pm

    When the late, great Jerry Norman (1936-2012) was staying at Peking University for a time about 15 years ago, I visited him in his guest house room and was astonished to find that he was surrounded by mounds of crime novels. I asked him why he read so many crime novels and he told me that he found them both stimulating and soothing at the same time.

    BTW, Jerry Norman was a very serious convert to Russian Orthodoxy, even learning Old Church Slavonic so that he could read the religious texts of the faith in their original language. He was also a specialist on Manchu, having written his third book (1967) and his last book (posthumously published in 2013) on that language.

    Several of my other friends are also converts to Russian Orthodoxy, and they all have a similar emotional outlook — even-keeled and earnest, yet with a slight undercurrent of ironic wit.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 7:36 pm

    @Thorin

    Reading a novel for pleasure and translating it into another language are, as we say in Mandarin, liǎngmǎshì 兩碼事 ("two [entirely / quite] different things"). In the o.p., my friend mentioned that I like to read the Zhuang Zi for relaxation and stress reduction, but translating it into English was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life.

  12. julie lee said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 8:09 pm

    A note on "anti-hypertensives", a Chinese friend told me she ate celery sticks with her lunch and dinner, and that that kept her blood pressure from going high. I didn't believe her for a long time. Then I heard other Chinese say the same thing. So I tried and it works for me. One Chinese friend said celery leaves are even more potent in lowering blood pressure. Sliced raw fennel in salads also seems to work for me (when I skip celery). I have a friend in his 70s who has taught in an American university for 40 years. He ate raw celery sticks every day as a snack (to keep from eating sweets). He is slim. His physician says he has the pulse and blood pressure of a young man. I wonder if scientific tests have been made on the effects of celery and fennel on blood pressure.

  13. Milan said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 8:12 pm

    @Guy,

    that might very well be, I am only vaguely aware of those shows. Many people, me included, tend to think of it as a German speciality, but that is probably a common bias. Most people are probably only aware of the (by subjective, but commonly shared standards) better and more sophisticated cultural productions from other while they are familiar with a much broader spectrum in their own culture.

    To be fair, though, I have to say that with the Tatort the treatment of the issue at hand often actually is quite nuanced, it is just that it is only peripherally connected to the actual plot, that almost always is a simple narrative of restoring order and justice.

  14. John Swindle said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 8:29 pm

    And if real German crime novels are too hard … André Klein has written a cool series of German crime fiction e-books for intermediate to advanced learners. The series title is "Learning German Through Storytelling." Each short chapter is followed by vocabulary notes for English speakers and Übungen. He says they'll help you follow "Tatort"!

  15. Rebecca said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 10:34 pm

    Victor, is your friend named Mimi, by any chance:

    https://youtu.be/uHoZ6hEf5ng

    (Personally, I always sought out a Krimi for train travel. I don't know if it had effect on my blood pressure, but it certainly was just the right amount of complexity/interest level to hold my attention, but not too much)

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 11:32 pm

    "In the typical German episode, an (often elderly) police detective just goes around drinking coffee and interviewing suspects, and eventually someone breaks and admits they did it. Then they sob and get arrested — no car chase and fist fight."

    Sounds like Miss Marple, one of which I recently enjoyed.

  17. Graeme said,

    August 19, 2015 @ 4:22 am

    Thus reminds me of my wife. Who likes detective fiction and gory forensic police dramas. Before bed. Both disturb me – the opposite with her.

    But it reminds me more of a piece of her academic psychology research which went viral in late June. She proved that extreme/metal music calms its devotees. Counter intuitively to popular misconceptions. Of course much international media mis-sold the story as 'metal music can calm you'. And to devotees, the response was 'nice to be vindicated but tell us something we didn't know'.

  18. Chip said,

    August 19, 2015 @ 6:40 am

    "In the typical German episode, an (often elderly) police detective just goes around drinking coffee and interviewing suspects, and eventually someone breaks and admits they did it. Then they sob and get arrested — no car chase and fist fight."

    Sounds like the British Bryant & May books by author Chris Fowler. I just finished the final one last night… the two police detectives (from the Peculiar Crimes Unit, or the PCU) are in their 80s, one of which is starting to feel the effects of Alzheimers and suddenly finds himself lost in London from time to time.

  19. tsts said,

    August 19, 2015 @ 10:01 am

    @Chip&Jerry_Friedman: yes, there certainly are many examples of this in other countries, and I was also painting the difference between the US and Germany with a very broad brush. But there are also great differences between say Ms. Marple and a German TV series in terms of the general mood; there is a lot of wit and humor in Ms. Marple, while the German series usually shows a very dull and dark picture of police work — lots of grey skies and rain, the musty insides of police stations, unshaven policemen working through the night, etc. Everything has to be very realistic, according to some weird German conception of "real" — if there is a car chase you will have folks complaining that this is "unrealistic".

  20. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2015 @ 4:47 pm

    From an Italophile friend who is an avid reader of all sorts of quality literature:

    The LL post is intriguing. As you may know, I've been reading crime literature for my "idle" reading for years. I think it's a guilty secret for many academics. More and more are coming out of the closet.

    Regarding Henning Mankell​, which your friend read in the German translation: S [VHM: my Italophile friend's partner] and I picked up a copy of his "Man from Bejing" in an airport bookstore a few years back. It was a hefty book, certainly over 400 pages and maybe up to 700, and lasted S for the entire flight.

    Mankell is most well known as a crime writer for his series of books featuring the Swedish detective Kurt Wallender. The BBC tried to make a TV series, which in my view failed. The Americans brought a few of the books to TV I think, and the Swedes also had one early Wallender TV series. Then they started over with the remarkable Krister Henriksson as Wallender. This series produced 13 movie-length shows over a ten year period. The show was a remarkable achievement, which S and I continue to discuss a year or more after watching the final show.

    Mankell, as you may know, is now dying of inoperable cancer. BTW, he himself may be a person without a mother tongue, as he spent much of his life in South Africa.

    ….

    I wanted to add that we watched the Swedish Wallender series 2 in Swedish with subtitles.

    After watching foreign films S and I always wonder "Was that film subtitled or in English?" We never remember reading the subtitles, which in our view is another form of language. We always experience the film as if we are hearing the spoken language and understanding it.

    We've always thought the Italian practice of dubbing all foreign films into Italian is quaint. Their dubbers are stars in their own right. When they go on strike the film industry shuts down.

    ….
    I didn't particularly care for the British Wallender series staring Kenneth Branagh. Far too dark. I believe it's a corruption of Mankell's intent.

    S and I both admire Branagh for his Shakespeare movies.

  21. Dave Cragin said,

    August 19, 2015 @ 9:47 pm

    Stress releases hormones that can increase blood pressure, so reading books or eating celery could well work for mild high blood pressure. The key is whether that reduction lasts for 24 hrs/day, as is needed.

    Moderate to mild high blood pressure may have no symptoms, but it will still do damage to your body. A 1980 pharmacology book I have has life expectancy prediction table based on blood pressure that life insurance companies used to use because it was such a good predictor for life span before the advent of many modern drugs. Relatively small increases in blood pressure can decrease your life span.

    Hence, if you self-treating high blood pressure, be sure that you're monitoring your blood pressure well after the book or the celery (i.e., after the relaxation of the moment)(Julie – we want you to continue posting for a long time).

    Has celery or fenel been tested? I don't know. I do know that pharmacologists will look almost anywhere for drugs to treat various conditions. The 1st on Victor's list, ACE Inhibitors, was 1st isolated of Brazilian pit viper venom (Captopril). Erythromycin came from dirt from the Philippines. This continues to this day. One of the newer diabetes drugs, Byetta, was originally isolated from Gila monster venom.

  22. julie lee said,

    August 19, 2015 @ 11:06 pm

    Dave Craigin,

    Thanks for the information on blood pressure. From my own experience, celery is effective for mild to moderate high blood pressure, and I think that's true for my friends who use it. We have to eat it every day, twice a day, in order to lower blood pressure, i.e. at lunch and dinner, or breakfast and dinner, and maintain it over 24 hours. When I forget celery for a day, my b.p. typically will be 145/97, or the lower (diastolic) number may even go to 105. But eating celery (three stalks a day, without leaves) keeps it about 125/80, or lower. If I eat too much celery it can get really low, like 95/70. Thanks for letting us know that even mild to moderate high b.p. can be damaging and decrease life span. (Of course, even if your b.p. is 125/80, it can suddenly soar because of stress, and then celery won't bring it down quickly. Then perhaps reading something like crime novels, or meditation, or something, will bring it down quickly.)
    The information about the medicinal powers of snake venoms is really interesting. So there is something behind the expression "snake oil" after all.

  23. Phil Bowler said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 3:36 am

    "Both Volcker Kutscher and Henning Mankell's crime novels are available in English. "
    I would love to try Kutscher, but Amazon has only the German editions of his novels, and an Internet search hasn't turned up anything. Have I missed something?

  24. Brendan said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 5:22 am

    We never remember reading the subtitles, which in our view is another form of language. We always experience the film as if we are hearing the spoken language and understanding it.

    According to one philosophy of translation — one to which I generally subscribe, especially where subtitling is concerned — this is a mark of a successful translation. Though I have to agree with earlier commenters: reading novels and watching movies in translation can be wonderfully relaxing, but actually producing those translations, especially under the constraints involved in subtitling, has a tendency to ratchet up the old systolic over diastolic. Translating for dubbing, which I've never done, must be even more stressful, since in addition to time and vocabulary constraints there's also pressure to match the mouth movements of speakers.

    I haven't had the pleasure of reading Henning Mankell — though my grandmother (who always reminded my wife of Miss Marple) enjoyed Man from Beijing a lot — but for long trips and general stress reduction, Elmore Leonard is one of my go-tos.

    …a cool series of German crime fiction e-books for intermediate to advanced learners.

    This is an awesome idea — and a reminder, as if any further reminder were necessary, of just how lame the options available to students of Chinese are.

  25. Brett said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 7:21 am

    @Dave Cragin: The fact that mild high blood pressure decreases life expectancy does not, on its own, tell you anything about whether mild high blood pressure is damaging. Mild high blood pressure now is a risk factor for serious high blood pressure—something that really is dangerous—in the future, so people with above-average blood pressure now will, on average, have shorter lives, even if their present blood pressure is not harmful in any way.

  26. Thorin said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 7:23 am

    @Phil Bowler

    That confused me, too – I translated the first in Volker Kutscher's Gereon Rath series for a corporate client who had contacted the author and the German publishing company before doing so, although it is not to be published or used beyond that client's own purposes – but when I spoke with the publishing company about potentially submitting my translation to an agent, they said the rights had not even been sold to any English-speaking countries yet.

    Now, looking at the Kiwi-Verlag's site, they have sold the rights to a UK-based publishing company, but I don't think any of his books have been translated into English for publishing purposes beyond samples.

  27. Charles Antaki said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 1:13 pm

    @Chip

    But do the German detectives have knowingly ironic / teasing names? (For non-Brits, and younger readers: Bryant & May is – was – a popular brand of matches)

  28. Dave Cragin said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 8:52 pm

    Brett: Yes, that mild blood pressure reduces life span doesn't on its own tell whether mildly elevated blood pressure is damaging. It's basic biology and the pathological processes associated with hypertension that explain why elevated blood pressure is dangerous (well beyond something to discuss on this blog).

    Blood pressure isn't like a light switch that above a specific "mild" number there is suddenly a risk and below that there is none. The risks from blood pressure are a gradual curve – the higher the pressure above normal and the longer the duration, the greater the risks.

    I'd recommend finding a good pharmacology book to better understand this in detail (Goodman & Gilman's is the classic).

  29. Milan said,

    August 21, 2015 @ 4:00 pm

    @Charles Antaki
    A new Tatort detective is called Tschiller, after the anglicism "chillen", to chill out, but also as an allusion to the German poet and friend of Goethe, Friedrich Schiller. He is played Til Schweiger, who, I think, has some international fame.

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