Much had been written about SNOW WHITE MUST DIE and its author, Nele Neuhaus, long before the first binding of the book had been cracked in the United States. Without prior background in publishing, Neuhaus has achieved widely-heralded popularity with her crime fiction series set in the area of the Tanus Mountains in Germany. She began by self-publishing (printing and distributing books herself), earned a publishing deal and, by the time the dust settled and the smoke cleared, had become Germany’s top crime fiction author. This fourth book in her series featuring the detective team of Pia Kirchhoff and her troubled supervisor, Oliver von Bodenstein, is her first to be published in the United States (thanks in great part to the able translation of Steven T. Murray), and it promises to repeat her world-wide success here.
"While SNOW WHITE MUST DIE is very much a German novel in its setting, the themes that it addresses are universal, so much so that its wide-ranging popularity is easily understood. The book and its author should, and hopefully will, attain the same level and degree of popularity in the United States as it has experienced elsewhere."
The book begins with a somewhat familiar setup, that being the individual who returns to the one place he shouldn’t for all the wrong reasons. Tobias Sartorius is infamous in his hometown, the small village of Altenhain in Germany. Some 11 years before, two young women disappeared; though their bodies were never found, circumstantial evidence indicated the occurrence of foul play, as well as Tobias’s direct involvement. The young man had been romantically involved with both of them and had experienced a very public disagreement with one of them shortly before the disappearance. Tobias was unable to mount much of a defense on his own behalf, due to the fact that he had experienced an alcoholic blackout on the night in question. He was convicted of the murders and received the maximum sentence of 10 years without the possibility of appeal.
Now, having served his full sentence and having been released from prison, Tobias returns to Altenhain and is shocked by what he finds there. The family business is in ruins and the farm that has been in his family for generations is falling apart and, worse, is deeded to someone else. Tobias’s father is a shell of his former self. All of these circumstances result directly from Tobias’s conviction and the subsequent ostracism of Tobias’s family by the local villages. Only two people outside of his immediate family are welcoming his return. One is a childhood friend who, during the years of Tobias’s incarceration, has become a famous actress; the other is a major captain of industry in the village whose very visible philanthropy is such that essentially everyone in the village --- including his father --- is beholden to him. But Tobias has barely taken his first tentative steps into the hostile territory that he used to call his hometown before time begins to give up its secrets.
A body is uncovered during work on a construction project. The investigation is quickly assigned to Kirchhoff and von Bodenstein, who all too quickly determine that the corpse is that of one of the missing girls. At the same time, a teenage girl who has recently moved to Altenhain --- and who bears a striking and uncanny resemblance to the other, still-missing victim --- strikes up a friendship with Tobias and with an emotionally troubled village resident whose dark and haunting paintings hold the truth to what occurred on a fateful night over a decade before. The book’s multilayered resolution is unpeeled slowly, as truths that are revealed uncover hidden falsehoods that preceded the crimes for which Tobias was convicted. By the time that the novel concludes, a sort of justice is obtained at last, though it is at best incomplete and all the more troubling for that.
While SNOW WHITE MUST DIE is very much a German novel in its setting, the themes that it addresses are universal, so much so that its wide-ranging popularity is easily understood. The book and its author should, and hopefully will, attain the same level and degree of popularity in the United States as it has experienced elsewhere.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 22, 2013