Last agenda item on any trip to London – because it is my favourite bookshop, and only a hop, skip and a jump from Euston station – is a visit to the geographical bookshelves (see footnote) in Daunts on Marylebone High Street to find some reading material for the train journey back home. This time I set a challenge. It was #germanlitmonth and from the Germany shelf I wanted something I hadn’t come across before. Also it needed not to be a book set in Berlin. (I’d spent enough time there with Döblin in recent weeks.)
There were no translations from German that were unknown to me, but there were a few anglophone novels that fit the bill. This promising series of Brother Grimm mysteries, for instance. I eventually settled on Jenny Mayhew’s debut novel, A Wolf in Hindelheim. I think the atmospheric cover was the decider.
Hindelheim is a remote (fictional) village in South West Germany. The doctor, Peter Koenig and his wife, Ute live with his sister, Joanna and her husband Heinrich. Both couples are unhappy. Peter and Ute because they are mismatched. Joanna and Heinrich because of their severely disabled child. Then their newborn daughter disappears. When her body is found 3 days later, Constable Theodore Hildebrandt suspects that the doctor’s story doesn’t stack up.
It’s 1926 and this rural village setting is as far away from Döblin’s Alexanderplatz as you can get. Everybody knows everyone else, their business, and the details of their liaisons. It’s remote, but even here political tensions are simmering. The area and its inhabitants are scarred from the aftereffects of the first World War. The German Peoples League (forerunners of the Nazis) are active and adherents of eugenics programmes are becoming increasingly vocal. The young Jew, Elias Frankel, finds himself unfairly arrested, and when he makes a strike for freedom, his problems exacerbate. But his reputation grows – folk are suspicious in these parts and soon stories of a wolfman with extraordinary powers abound.
The constable is a talented man, but with a tendency to speak bluntly to those he interviews and his superiors. The enmities that ensue don’t make his life any easier. Neither does the conflict with his jobs-worthy deputy and son, Klaus. And finally to complicate the picture further, he falls in love with the doctor’s wife!
This isn’t a fast-moving thriller by any means, nor is the mystery of the baby’s disappearance the central focus. A Wolf in Hindelheim is rather an examination of a society between two wars, one still coming to terms with the defeat of WWI and not sure where it is heading though the new road, currently under construction, will change it in unforeseen ways. Of course, readers have precise knowledge about those changes, and that makes for a rather foreboding read, especially when we see how The German Peoples League play on the suggestible. There are some fine character studies too, even if the characters themselves aren’t always fine.
I’m glad I read this. I can see “The Bookshop Challenge” becoming a new feature.
Footnote: The geographical bookshelves contain a mix of non-fiction and fiction set in the country in question.