February 6, 2023

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Benedict Witten: "Leiden Central" - the wrath of the exploited

Benedict Witten: “Leiden Central” – the wrath of the exploited

At first glance, this book meets the standard crime novel checklist: it begins with a corpse. There is a criminal and a detective who makes it their personal mission to bring this man to prison – and to do so, they start themselves breaking the rules.

But Benedict Witten’s Leiden Centraal has more to offer than suspense. Brilliantly beautiful descriptions and contrasting characters make this book stand out. And frighteningly realistic insights into the system of labor exploitation from Eastern Europe, which German construction companies, nursing homes and slaughterhouses widely benefit from.

Two women become allies

At the center of his third novel, the Munich author puts two women who have become allies over time, although initially on opposite sides: police officer Valerie Stetter and Christina Mito, who works for a notorious temporary employment agency.

As an IT expert, Valerie is responsible for digital forensics at the Munich Police. The sound of cell phones ringing in body bags haunts her until she sleeps, as do photos and emails of suspects she reconstructs from erased hard drives.

On the other hand, Valerie finds inner peace in programming, in the clarity of zeros and ones. Until you make a fatal mistake while investigating Christina’s boss.

In search of the missing sister

Christina is also looking for clues – after her missing sister, Loredana. Years ago, a temporary employment agency lured her from her hometown of Romania to Germany. Since then, Loredana’s cell phone number has died and the connection has been lost.

From Christina’s perspective, we learn how brokers collect the passports of people from Eastern Europe willing to work, put them in expensive housing, and exploit their ignorance to withhold minimum wages and holidays from them. Salaries aren’t paid, overtime is piling up, occupational safety and health insurance are missing – and at some point the exploiters’ anger explodes with a subcontractor.

A socially critical novel of acute beauty

As you read on, you can feel how extensive the research Benedict Witten did for this book – both on IT forensics and on the exploitation of foreign workers. As early as 1906, Upton Sinclair described similar conditions in Chicago’s slaughterhouses in his socially significant novel “The Jungle”: miserable hygiene standards, industrial accidents. Also at that time, workers from Eastern Europe were the victims. The principles of this inhumane economic system seem to have changed little to this day.

Benedict Witten talks about this in plain language, with sentences of sharp beauty. On her rail journey to the eponymous station, Leiden Central, Valerie sees “dark brick buildings, faint marks in warehouses, and every few seconds a steel beam cuts through the picture hard, like a shimmer.”

A confrontational journey that leaves many questions unanswered. In the end, will enough digital traces remain for Valerie to expose the exploit system in a way that will stand up to court?