Book review: Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus

European crime writing is one of the runaway success stories of recent years… and it’s not only the Scandinavians who are chilling and thrilling.

Monday, 22nd July 2013, 10:00 am
Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus
Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus

Meet Nele Neuhaus, a young German author whose sensational mystery and police procedural novels have been published in 22 countries and sold over three million copies in Germany alone.

She has been talked about in the same breath as Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell, and now a translation by Steven T.Murray has let English speakers in on the case.

Snow White Must Die is just one book in a widely-acclaimed series featuring Neuhaus’s charismatic double act, Det Insp Pia Kirchhoff and aristocratic Det Supt Oliver von Bodenstein, the flawed but fascinating star crime fighters from Frankfurt police department.

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A dark, compelling and atmospheric tale of claustrophobic close community collusion, this is a subtly nuanced, superbly crafted and spine-tingling whodunit guaranteed to set the pulse racing and the grey matter in motion.

Cleverly worked parallel plotlines, a line-up of coldly caustic suspects and plenty of inhumanity at its deepest and darkest are the building blocks of a multi-layered mystery that exudes evil with consummate ease.

Eleven years ago in Altenhain , a small village near Frankfurt, a 20-year-old local youth was found guilty of murdering his beautiful 17-year-old girlfriend Stefanie Schneeberger, known as Snow White, and her best friend Laura Wagner despite their bodies never being found.

The two girls vanished without a trace and in a trial based entirely on circumstantial evidence, Tobias Sartorius, who was drunk on the fateful night, was convicted and imprisoned for the murders after refusing to defend himself in court.

After serving his ten-year sentence, Tobias has returned home to discover that his disgrace has broken up his parents’ marriage, forced his mother to flee and put paid to his father’s successful restaurant business.

His presence in the little German village stirs up events from the past – events that the locals would prefer to remain hidden – but guilt over his father, now a shambling wreck, forces him to stay put.

When Tobias and his father are subjected to a number of attacks and his absent mother is pushed from a railway bridge, Detective Inspector Pia Kirchhoff and DS Oliver von Bodenstein are dispatched to monitor the tense atmosphere in the tight-knit community.

As the villagers close ranks, it becomes clear that the disappearance of Snow White and her friend was far more complicated and sinister than previously imagined. And when history starts to repeat itself and pretty 17-year-old local girl Amelie Fröhlich goes missing, Pia and Oliver are thrown into a race against time.

The venal village of Altenhain is an inspired creation with its secretive, insular community ill at ease with outsiders, its past and with the truth.

And equally complex and compelling are Neuhaus’ team of police officers whose fight for justice is too often compromised by their own failings and their own personal battles.

Snow White Must Die is a powerful page-turner and an impressive introduction to an exciting new name from the ever-expanding stable of classy European thriller writers.

(Macmillan, trade paperback, £12.99)