"The Vanishing of Katharina Linden," by Helen Grant

(Courtesy Of Delacorte - Courtesy Of Delacorte)
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By Dennis Drabelle
Monday, August 23, 2010


By Helen Grant

Delacorte. 287 pp. $24

Helen Grant brings a rich tradition to bear on "The Vanishing of Katharina Linden": German folk tales and rites, especially the eerie variety, from trolls to the Brothers Grimm and beyond. A local legend figures into this first novel: Unshockable Hans, the only fellow who dared live in a valley that "had to be the most haunted place on earth." And the country's Nazi past comes into play, adding another shuddering layer. The result endows a briskly entertaining story with creepy depths unavailable to thrillers set in less fraught lands.

Grant is an Englishwoman who in 2001 moved to Bad M√ľnstereifel, Germany, where the novel takes place (she now lives in Brussels). She has given her own nationality to the mother of Pia Kolvenbach, the novel's 11-year-old heroine. The father is German, the mother is unhappy about being away from home, and the parents quarrel frequently over German customs and food (the mother is anti-wurst). Mom is not very diplomatic in voicing her complaints, dad is quick to take umbrage, and the marital tension increases as, first, Katharina, and then other children, go missing.

Pia's troubles began even before the first disappearance, when her grandmother exploded -- or so the girl's classmates like to put it. In fact, the old lady, Oma Kristel, burned to death at a family gathering when she lost control of a match while trying to light the Advent wreath and her heavily sprayed hair caught fire. Losing her oma was bad enough, but Pia then became a pariah at school; her classmates not only laughed at her, they also feared her as a jinx. She is reduced to keeping company with the only kid who has nothing to lose by befriending her, StinkStefan, "the most unpopular boy in the class" -- who turns out, however, to be quite adept at sneaking into other people's houses to look for clues.

Pia gets no help from her parents, lost as they are in their bickering. In one thoughtless moment, Pia's mother compares a rash of broken windows in town to Kristallnacht, the 1938 rioting that featured the smashing of windows in shops and houses owned by Jews, and Pia's father is so offended that you can almost see the marriage itself shatter. The kids' only adult ally is Herr Schiller, an octogenarian with a remarkable ability to relate to children. His main contribution is to act as a sounding board as Pia and Stefan make their discoveries, but in a town where everyone else is too terrified by the serial disappearances to want to talk about them, Herr Schiller's accessibility is not to be discounted.

Grant narrates her story with admirable economy, smoothly working in folk tales and seasonal rituals. A particularly creepy moment comes at the annual St. Martin's Day parade (in honor of the paragon who cut his cloak in two and gave half to a shivering beggar). By now the schoolteachers have become obsessed with counting and recounting the children in their care. The problem is that everyone puts on a mask for the festivities, and one teacher doesn't realize that, although the count keeps coming out right, the children are not the same ones she started with.

Grant seems to want readers to be surprised by the killer's identity, but she concentrates on such a small set of characters that it's pretty easy to figure out whodunit. No matter. As travel writers are always reminding us, often the best part of the fun is getting there. The same is true of "The Vanishing of Katharina Linden." Steeped in spooky legends and set in a country that, for all its present-day serenity, can't fully escape the burden of its harrowing past, this is a mystery with unusual resonance.

Drabelle is the mysteries editor of Book World.

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