Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus is the fourth in the Oliver von Bodenstein and Pia Kirchhoff series (available January 15, 2013).
A small town holds many secrets.
When 30-year-old Tobias (Tobi) Sartorius returns to his small hometown after serving a ten-year prison term for double murder, those secrets start to fester and ooze.
Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus is the fourth (and most successful) in Neuhaus’s series featuring German detectives Oliver von Bodenstein and Pia Kirchhoff and it is the first to be translated into English. (One of Neuhaus’s stand-alone novels will be published in English this summer.)
Bodenstein and Kirchoff get involved in the small town’s business when a skeleton belonging to one of the dead girls shows up in a tank on an abandoned military base about the same time someone pushes Tobi’s mother over a bridge and into busy traffic.
Tobias claims he can’t remember what happened on the fateful night his two ex-girlfriends disappeared but someone knows who lies at the bottom of that empty fuel tank and someone knows where the body of the second girl has been all these years.
And everybody knows the identity of the person who pushed Rita Cramer into traffic but nobody’s telling.
On the surface Snow White Must Die is a Euro-Noir that unfolds in a leisurely fashion after a Gothic opening worthy of William Faulkner. (Think “A Rose for Emily.”) We’re introduced to Tobias and his father and many of the other inhabitants of Altenhain, most of whom are not happy to see the young man return to the scene of his crimes and most of whom are ready to help speed him on his way to anywhere else but there.
One of the few friendly faces in Altenhain is 17-year-old Amelie Frölich, a teenager banished from Berlin for her antisocial behavior. She becomes fascinated by Tobias and the 11-year-old murder case, much to the dismay of everyone in town, including her autistic best friend Thies, whose brother Lars was one of Tobi’s best friends before the murders.
Tobi’s father has given up fighting the other villagers and now just wants to be left alone. His son still has a fire in his belly, though, and does not shy away from confronting the local shopkeeper (and head gossip).
“I’ve served my time and now I’m back,” he tells her, “whether you like it or not.”
She doesn’t like it, not one bit, but when her husband intervenes and tells her to let Tobias pay for the groceries he wants to buy, she clenches her teeth and obeys.
Snow White Must die is a Euro-Noir that has co-opted the tropes associated with cozy mysteries—the small village, the gossipy inhabitants, the family secrets—and used them to chilling effect.
Call it an “anti-cozy.”
Here the local watering hole is a place where villagers gather to drink and eat but also to scheme and plan and conspire. Amelie works at the Black Horse and keeps her eyes open and her neckline plunging (the better to attract tips) and forms her own opinions about Tobi from the gossip she hears.
Pia also has her own opinion about the long-dead case and those opinions put her at odds with Oliver and also with their boss who is working with limited resources and doesn’t want any of them wasted on investigating a case that was solved a decade earlier. Oliver, who usually trusts his partner’s hunches, is distracted during the case by personal problems and so is Pia, and that’s an aspect of the story that reminds us of cozies as well. Just as the small town inhabitants of Althain are connected by marriage and blood and shared secrets, the law and order world of Pia and Oliver has its own secrets too.
This book would make an excellent television series along the lines of The Killing, especially since it offers some respite from the darkness in the form of Pia’s loving relationship with the director of the local zoo. (She met him on a case.)
The characters in Snow White Must Die are solid and well-drawn, and the investigation—which gets a little over-the-top near the end—is still absorbing and engaging. You may very well guess the identities of the people involved in the murders and the cover-ups but you will not guess all the secrets this book holds.
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Katherine Tomlinson lives in Los Angeles in an apartment where her TBR pile has its own bookcase. She writes dark fiction but has a soft spot for cozy mysteries, heroic fantasy, and horror novels where only bad people get killed. She is the editor of the upcoming anthology Nightfalls.