Written by Nele Neuhaus — There is a wonderful Cinderella story behind this book, or rather its author. Only seven years ago, German writer Nele Neuhaus was a self-published debut author timidly cold-calling local bookstores in her native Germany. Since then, however, she has proved that hard work and perseverance really do pay off, and she has become a global publishing phenomenon. Neuhaus has published one self-contained thriller set in the New York banking world, six books in the Kirchhoff and Bodenstein detective series, as well as four mid-grade pony books. It was only after publishing her third book in 2008 via a print on demand service that Ullstein, one of the big German publishers, offered her a contract. Her success outstripped even their expectations – translation rights in 20 countries, over 3.5 million book sales in Germany alone, and two of her books have recently been filmed for TV. Not bad going for what is essentially crime fiction in a very local setting: the mainly rural Main-Taunus region near Frankfurt.
Wonderfully titled, Snow White Must Die is the fourth in a procedural series featuring Pia Kirchhoff and Oliver von Bodenstein, although it is the first book to be translated into English. Consequently, some of the back story may be unfamiliar to new readers and might interfere a little with their enjoyment of the main story. However, the book is not a typical police procedural and the emphasis is more on the members of the local community and their psychology.
The story is not entirely unfamiliar and has been addressed before in crime fiction. What happens after a convicted criminal is released back into society? Tobias Sartorius has just returned to his childhood home, the small village of Altenhain, after spending 11 years in prison for the double murder of two 17-year-old girls – his schoolmates and neighbours. The trial was based on circumstantial evidence and the bodies of the girls were never found. However, Tobias himself suffered an alcohol-induced blackout the night of the murders and is unsure of his guilt or innocence.
He is shocked to discover just how badly his parents’ lives have been ruined since his conviction and how hostile the community is towards him and his family. Subjected to vigilante attacks, he is devastated to find out that his mother was deliberately pushed from a bridge. The only people to show him any kindness are an old childhood friend, Nadia, and a rebellious teenager new to the area, Amelie. But when Amelie goes missing as well, the tight-knit community is convinced that Tobias is to blame once more.
Yet Pia Kirchhoff is not convinced. Soon after Tobias’s return, the skeleton of one his supposed victims is discovered in a jet fuel tank at an abandoned airfield. As the two detectives re-examine the initial investigation, they find discrepancies and a few glaring omissions. Or rather, Kirchhoff does, because Bodenstein is far too preoccupied with his wife’s fidelity throughout most of the book. I felt the detectives were rather shadowy figures in the storyline, not terribly engaging, but that may not be true of other books in the series.
It is hard to summarise the story, because the author is certainly no minimalist when it comes to plotting and describing her characters’ motivations. All in all, it makes for a complex, multifaceted story, with many twists showing up just as you thought you had resolved the mystery. Even though at times it felt like the story was a familiar one, or in danger of descending into cliché, the Neuhaus is very clever at the gradual reveal and at subverting your expectations. A solid, enthralling thriller with a splash of darkness and sadness to it, rather like the fantastically ominous, if somewhat misleading, title.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars
Snow White Must die is out in the United States now, you can order it here. Import copies can be ordered in the UK using the link below.