Nele Neuhaus is evidently the reigning queen of Germany mystery fiction, and it’s not terribly hard to see why. Neuhaus, like other European mystery writers (Stieg Larsson in particular), has a dark view of humanity, and a boring hero to face off against it. In both Snow White Must Die and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a flavorless investigator looks into a crime that leads to a group of seemingly normal citizens. As the investigator digs deeper, he or she discovers that nearly every one of the people he or she meets has a terrible secret, almost nobody has a conscience, and the overall effect of victory is the relief of survival, not the pleasure of triumph.
In the first of Neuhaus’s books to be translated into English—though, oddly, it’s the fourth of the series—Tobias Sartorius has just been released from prison, having served 12 years for the double murder of his high school girlfriend and his ex-girlfriend. Tobias can’t remember the night of the incident, having blacked out from drinking, so his inability to answer for his whereabouts did not save him from a mountain of evidence that was admittedly circumstantial.
Tobias moves back home with his father and discovers that his parents have lost their business and divorced, victims of the village’s unrelenting vitriol toward the Sartorius name. Tobias tries to rebuild his life, but, since the entire village hates him and wants him gone, it’s a bit difficult. Then, a young girl he befriends—one who takes an interest in him because she doesn’t believe he’s a killer—goes missing, and Tobias gets blamed for the crime.
Neuhaus’s greatest talent is plotting, as is usually the case with these high-profile mystery novels, and she makes a compelling read, if only for the sake of unmasking the killer.
But there are also a lot of problems in this novel. For one thing, Tobias is an almost inhumanly stupid person, and/or often an unsatisfying character. Neuhaus takes care to give him a flash-point temper; that is, she gives him the ability to have murdered two women. But from the very start, the book’s tone (and the fact that there’s a book at all) makes it clear that Tobias is innocent, so his questions about his own innocence ring false. To make matters worse, he has been and continues to be pretty damn stupid.
An example of that stupidity: after three masked men from the village (ostensibly trying to run him out of town) beat him nearly to death with baseball bats, he goes out drinking with three of his old friends, whom he acknowledges might have been his attackers. If that’s not enough, he drinks so much he blacks out—you might think a decade in jail would scare him off drinking ever again, but no. Sure enough, the girl goes missing while he’s blacked out, and Tobias is left—again—without an alibi.
You can almost see the chess board Neuhaus has set up, by virtue of the mechanical ways in which she sometimes moves the pieces. Still, the effect is strong: the effect of rolling downhill, and of needing to know the answer. And that answer is complicated, which is lucky because otherwise she would’ve given it away by page 60. Neuhaus has an unwelcome habit of giving clear signals—through her omniscient narrator who sometimes flits into the minds of unnamed bad people—that this or that character was involved with the murders. But so many of her characters have dastardly secrets that it’s impossible to foresee exactly what happened until the last bit of dust is brushed off the skeleton.
As for the prose itself, the translation never gives it much oomph. On the other hand, I have yet to read a translated popular mystery with anything better than mediocre writing, so what do I know, maybe that’s how Europeans actually talk? With a stilted, robotic, grammatically precise cadence? Probably not, but nobody much seems to care, especially fans of Stieg Larsson. Speaking of, if you liked Dragon Tattoo, you’ll like this one. If not, skip it.