What would mystery fiction do without construction crews? Hardhats are the homicide division’s most hands-on helpers, always stumbling upon skeletons while tearing down walls and building foundations. Many a crime story begins when the remodeling does. All you Mr. and Ms. Fix-Its out there should think twice before swinging that sledgehammer into the plaster this weekend: You never know what (or whom) you might hit.
In the moody German mystery “Snow White Must Die,” an unlucky backhoe operator sets the tale in motion. During the demolition of a former military airfield near Frankfurt, this fellow scoops up a rusted fuel tank. To his horror, the tank turns out to be filled with bones and a human skull. Faster than the coroner can pronounce that the remains belong to someone who has been kaput for more than a decade, the plot thickens into a Gothic goulash of envy, betrayal and yearning turned rancid.
“Snow White Must Die” was published in Germany in 2010 and has been a bestseller in Europe. It’s easy to see why. Nele Neuhaus has a flair for the ominous and the ornate. Her primary setting, the village of Altenhain, makes those secretive villages in Agatha Christie novels seem as harmless as a collection of gingerbread houses. Altenhain is the anti-Christie town: Instead of quaintness, it offers decay; instead of Miss Marple, there’s a spiteful populace of voyeurs whose curiosity stokes the smoldering embers of violence.
So many subplots fork off the main narrative that this novel should be sold with a GPS. The gist of the most important storyline is this: 11 years ago, two teenage girls disappeared from Altenhain (the aforementioned bones in the fuel tank belong to one of them). Both frauleins were last seen in the company of local heartthrob Tobias Sartorius, and, based on circumstantial evidence (lots of blood in his car, one victim’s personal effects in his bedroom), he was convicted of their probable murders and sent to prison. He always protested his innocence, but since he was drunk on that fateful night, he’s not completely certain.
When the novel opens, Tobias, now in his early 30s, has served his sentence and just returned to Altenhain. Like George Bailey returning to Bedford Falls in that noir nightmare, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Tobias finds that all is changed: The family’s once lively restaurant is long shuttered, his parents have split up, and the villagers shun him and spray nasty graffiti on his house.
The only person who gives him the time of day is a newcomer, a sympathetic young waitress at a local tavern, whose Goth looks remind him of one of the long-vanished girls, whose nickname was “Snow White.” When this waitress disappears, her cellphone is discovered in Tobias’s pocket! Once again, Tobias was blotto during the critical time period and can’t remember whether he committed foul play. The past — or a malevolent manipulator of Tobias and the Altenhain townsfolk — has returned with a vengeance.
This is not a case for the easily distracted, and Neuhaus’s aristocratic police detective hero, Oliver von Bodenstein, has trouble staying focused on his work because he suspects that his filmmaker wife, Cosima, may be canoodling with another man. Neuhaus delicately dramatizes Oliver’s ambivalence about digging deeper into Cosima’s activities (a situation that mirrors Tobias’s dread of discovering, once and for all, the truth about his own guilt or innocence). Even when Oliver finds an incriminating text message on Cosima’s phone, he resolves to stay in the dark for as long as he can: “He would preserve the appearance and illusion of an intact relationship for a while yet. It might be cowardly, but he simply didn’t feel capable of grabbing hold of his life and smashing it to bits. There was still a tiny hope that things weren’t as they seemed.”
That all-too-human impulse to preserve illusions lies at the heart of the many, many crimes in “Snow White Must Die.” Neuhaus is a writer for whom more is better, so that every time we think this mystery is drawing to a satisfactory close, we confront more extreme situations: revelatory paintings behind hidden panels, flooded dungeons, widespread insanity masked by sweet smiles. As its title suggests, “Snow White Must Die” possesses some of the excess and off-kilter eeriness of the original Grimms’ fairy tale, before Disney came along to give Snow White a princess makeover in pastels.
Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
SNOW WHITE MUST DIE
By Nele Neuhaus
Translated from the German by
Steven T. Murray
Minotaur. 374 pp. $24.99