The début novel from Jenny Mayhew, A Wolf in Hindelheim is an atmospheric, slow but elegantly-paced novel set in a fictional German village between the wars.
Ostensibly a mystery – or perhaps a crime- novel, centred around the mystery of a missing baby, it’s also an allegory of the state of the German nation at this point in history, crippled by one world war, and with the seeds of what would eventually become Nazism already sown amongst a disaffected and uneasy population.
In a still, quiet, mountain village, in 1926, Constable Theodore Hildebrandt and his son and deputy, Klaus, are called to a farm where a baby has gone missing.
They find two branches of the same family – Johanna and Heinrich Muller, parents of the missing newborn, and Johanna’s brother Peter and his wife, Ute (familial relationships twist tightly around each other in this novel).
The infant is later found dead – left out in the bitter cold, it seems, by Johanna and Peter’s mother, who is suffering from dementia, and who lost track of what she was doing when watching the baby. But the truth is not so simply tragic as this solution suggests…
Mayhew probes the micro and the macro at once with her novel. This is an investigation into the habits and attitudes of a small town world, dangerous inward-looking, and almost medieval in some of its backward ways and beliefs.
In this regard, her depiction of the dangers of an apparently idyllic and placid world are reminiscent of the Scandi crime dramas we’ve come to love so well of late.
But the little world she paints is also a portrait in miniature of a nation in which a dangerous and deathly ideology would soon spring up. It is an attempt to understand how ordinary people might come to embrace almost insanely evil attitudes.
By the intelligent and effective intertwining of modern history with ancient folklore, myths and rituals, Mayhew implies that the roots of this evil run deeper than we think – or perhaps that any culture’s past can be twisted and transmuted into something terrible under the right circumstances.
A little too heavy-handed with its allegories, a little over-long, and a little under-edited, this is nonetheless an intriguing first novel. Mayhew’s undeniable gift for atmosphere – to say nothing of the dark themes that she raises and the spectres she conjures – make this a haunting and promising read.
Recommended for: Fans of Nordic crime drama looking for a change
Other recommended reading: Try the brilliant, brutal crime novels of Iceland’s Yrsa Sigurdardottir, which make gripping use of the country’s dramatic landscapes.