This is the fourth book in the German police procedural series featuring detectives Oliver van Bodenstein and Pia Kirchhoff but it’s the first to be translated into English.
Eleven years ago, two teenage girls disappeared from Altenhain. Both were last seen in the company of Tobias Sartorius, and, though their bodies were never found, he was, based on circumstantial evidence, convicted of their murders and sent to prison for ten years. He always protested his innocence, but since he experienced an alcohol-induced blackout, he’s not completely certain.
When the novel opens, Tobias, now in his early 30s, has served his sentence and just returned to Altenhain. The villagers shun him and begin a campaign of intimidation, except for his friend Nadia, a childhood friend/now famous actress who stayed in touch with him during his incarceration, and Amelie, a sympathetic newcomer who befriends him. When Amelie disappears, Tobias is again suspected of foul play. The past has returned with a vengeance as history seems to repeat itself.
There are so many characters that it can sometimes be difficult to remember who is who. To complicate the situation, there are so many connections between the villagers: “Everyone in the village was related to someone who lived only a couple of blocks away, and everyone knew the family histories of everyone else. They also knew the darkest secrets and liked to gossip about the transgressions, failures, and illnesses of their neighbors.” And it seems that everyone in that village is suspected/guilty of committing some heinous crime! I could not but be reminded of a soap opera in which everyone has a secret agenda and is always plotting against someone. Also as in soap operas filmed on sets, much takes place in one location; in the novel the Sartorius barn seems to be the gathering place for the entire community.
A lot of the backstories of characters are given so I almost started a cheat sheet to help me remember details. Several of the detectives also have personal crises with which to contend so there are about a dozen subplots. Since this is the fourth book of the series, there are references to previous cases which mean little to the English reader first encountering this author in translation.
The pacing of the novel is uneven. It starts well but then loses momentum midway when one mystery is solved. The unraveling of a second mystery seems to take forever. And the ending is just over the top!
I know little about German laws and the judicial system, so I was confused several times. People admit to a serious crime but are not arrested? But then later they are arrested for that crime? Reference is made to a statute of limitations on crimes but then a suspect is told, “’you will be charged . . . regardless of what your lawyer here says about the time limit running out.’”
There are some inconsistencies which had me shaking my head. How can a person plan an escape that is dependent on errors made by the police? How can a person be pushed against “an open fire door” and die? It is possible to drive a car through “four feet of snow”? A plane won’t start because of snow: “If it starts snowing any harder the plane might not even start”? One minute we are told that a character “left the hospital and took off walking. Nobody tried to stop him” and then we learn that he was not alone because someone else “hadn’t hesitated a second to sneak out of the hospital with him”? Detectives are told something significant and they totally ignore it? For example, Tobias goes missing but then calls his father who tells the police where his son is, yet later the detective asks Tobias, “’Where have you been? . . . We’ve been very worried about you.’” Someone tells the police that a man has joined his “daddy in heaven” but they don’t investigate? People notice that a phone is in use in an abandoned building but they don’t check it out and then when they are confronted by an intruder are shocked: “As if stunned they both spun around and stared at him in disbelief.” Some more careful editing was needed because a character apologizes for losing his temper “this morning” when the incident happened the previous day. And this confusion in time happens not once but twice!
The novel certainly tackles passions; jealousy, greed, and revenge abound. The instinct for self-preservation leads to so much betrayal. Unfortunately, I did not have much passion for the book. The author is apparently one of Germany’s best-loved crime writers, but I found the book implausible and excessive.