17 July 2013

Review: SNOW WHITE MUST DIE, Nele Neuhas

  • Originally published in German in 2010
  • English translation 2012 by Steven T. Murray
  • Published by PanMacmillan
  • ISBN 978-1-4472-2708-3
  • 371 pages
  • Review copy supplied by Pan Macmillan Australia
Synopsis (Amazon)

On a rainy November day police detectives Pia Kirchhoff and Oliver von Bodenstein are summoned to a mysterious traffic accident: A woman has fallen from a pedestrian bridge onto a car driving underneath. According to a witness, the woman may have been pushed. The investigation leads Pia and Oliver to a small village, and the home of the victim, Rita Cramer.

On a September evening eleven years earlier, two seventeen-year-old girls vanished from the village without a trace. In a trial based only on circumstantial evidence, twenty-year-old Tobias Sartorius, Rita Cramer’s son, was sentenced to ten years in prison. Bodenstein and Kirchhoff discover that Tobias, after serving his sentence, has now returned to his home town. Did the attack on his mother have something to do with his return?

In the village, Pia and Oliver encounter a wall of silence. When another young girl disappears, the events of the past seem to be repeating themselves in a disastrous manner. The investigation turns into a race against time, because for the villagers it is soon clear who the perpetrator is—and this time they are determined to take matters into their own hands.

An atmospheric, character-driven and suspenseful mystery set in a small town that could be anywhere, dealing with issues of gossip, power, and keeping up appearances.

My take

Twenty year old Tobias Sartorius was convicted of the murder/manslaughter of two girls last seen entering his house late at night. The evidence against him is purely circumstantial, there are no bodies, and Tobi himself claims alcohol-fuelled amnesia about the events of the night.

Now, eleven years on, he has been in jail, and returns home to the village, to his parents' house. He is not aware that his parents' marriage has broken up, his mother has left home, and his father's restaurant business has collapsed. The setting has an almost Gothic feel to it - his father's house is sombre and the villagers are very much against Tobi's return. It is a village of many secrets. It seems many of them actually know what happened the night the girls disappeared. Was Tobi simply a convenient scapegoat?

At the beginning of the novel there are at least three complications to the plot: Toby's mother is seriously injured after falling from a pedestrian bridge into the path of an oncoming car; a girl's body turns up in a fuel tank at a disused army base; and a girl with an uncanny resemblance to one of the missing girls (nicknamed Snow White) begins work in a local pub.

I found the writing style of the novel peculiarly flat. This may simply have been the effect of the translation but it seemed to me to be a novel where events rather than characters were important. I wondered if I was being cynical by thinking this was a novel written with an eye on television adaptation. Certainly the title is eye catching and before long you recognise that while one Snow White is dead (and who killed her is the question) another is in danger. There's a sinister Gothic quality to this village and secrets that need to be uncovered.

For my personal taste though, SNOW WHITE MUST DIE has too many sub plots, too many characters (who all seem to be related), and is too long. In addition some strands connect this novel with earlier ones in the series, although of course this is the first available in an English translation.

I kept thinking about what has made this novel so popular with German readers. Part of the answer must lie with the title and the marketing, but there's a flavour that sets Nele Neuhaus apart from her British and American counterparts. It seems to me that German readers have different expectations in their crime fiction, but perhaps there is also such a thing as a German "style".
It is something I have noticed before in novels such as Jan Costin Wagner's ICE MOON, and Paulus Hochgatterer's THE SWEETNESS OF LIFE.

My rating: 4.0

SNOW WHITE MUST DIE appears to be #4 of a series of 6 featuring detective duo Pia Bodenstein and Oliver Kirchhoff. A stand alone SWIMMING WITH SHARKS seems to be the only other title by Nele Neuhas available in English.

Other reviews to check
Author information

Nele Neuhaus is one of the most widely read German mystery writers. More than two million copies of her books are currently in print. She lives near Frankfurt, Germany.

Check the author's site for more details 

P.S.  I noticed a starting point similarity between SNOW WHITE MUST DIE and Michael Robotham's SAY YOU'RE SORRY.
In the latter two teenage girls also go missing, and, despite an extensive police search, their bodies are never found. However there is no convenient circumstantial evidence about who is responsible. So the actual plots are of course very different.

I find books where the authors have similar starting points very interesting, particularly as you explore how they give very different treatments to subsequent events.


Anonymous said...

Interesting, Kerrie, about the writing style and the focus on events. Now you're making me wonder if there is a distinctive 'German' kind of crime novel. Interesting food for thought....

Bernadette said...

I've not read enough German crime to know if they have their own style but I guess they might as well if everyone else does (is there an Australian style do you think?).

We seem to agree - the book wasn't awful but there was too much of everything, I feel like an old curmudgeon because I know three people who all loved it but they are all under 30.

Marina Sofia said...

Interesting comment about the German style - and, having grown up in German-speaking countries, I would say perhaps you are right. The language itself (and very often its literature) is denser, or perhaps I mean bushy. I was torn about this book - I liked certain aspects of it, but felt it was trying just a little too hard.

Kerrie said...

Thanks for the comment Maria. I feel a bit ambivalent about it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

We are certainly deluged by missing girls lately. Did the missing girls of Juarez spark this interest.


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