It’s not often I feel this enthusiastic about a debut novel from a newly-published writer. In A Wolf in Hinelheim Jenny Mayhew has created a very believable community of characters and placed them in a fictional region of Germany in 1926. Her writing and complex plotting shows a maturity which might suggest that she has written quite a number of books and I was not surprised to read that she has taught literature and creative writing at four universities and has written film scripts.
The book is set in a deeply rural community which is about to go through a leap into the modern world when a new road is constructed, bringing with it new commercial opportunities and better jobs. A a tension runs throughout the book between the old and the new, with most of the villagers being steeped in the folk-lore and legends of the surrounding forests.
Theodore Hidebrandt, the local constable runs his office from the home he shares with his son and daughter in law, his son Klaus acting as Deputy Constable. Theodore is an interesting character; having been badly injured in the First World War he stuggles with disabilities but applies a fine mind and a sceptical nature to the minor crimes and offences of the villages he is responsible for.
Theodore and Klaus are called out one day to a nearby village to investigate the case of a missing baby belonging to the village doctor’s sister. Two couples live in one house, together with a disabled older child who’s difficulties cause all manner of problems for the family. Only one member of the family, the doctor’s wife Ute is prepared to speak candidly about the missing child. Theodore, interviews her alone and despite his professional approach, he finds himself deeply intrigued by this attractive woman and she occupies a place in his thoughts long after the interview is over.
Within a day or two, the baby is found dead and a suspiciously hasty burial is conducted by the grieving family. Theodore returns to the house and despite the apparent sadness at the loss of the child he is strangely unmoved by his conversations with the family and their attempt to suggest that a local Jewish young man, Elias Frankel should be the prime suspect.
Throw into the mix a story-hungry local journalist who latches on to the suggestion that Elias may be responsible and combines this with rumour of a “wolf-man” being seen in the neighbourhood and before long Elias has fled and a witch hunt has been started.
What makes this book work is its combination of a number of complex themes which Jenny Mayhew manages to control so well throughout the book. We find an emerging anti-Semitic feeling throughout the community, which when seasoned with ancient forest beliefs in were-wolves makes for a potent and poisonous brew. There is a German League of local no-hopers who use the situation to whip up local feeling and then launch out into vigiilante action which goes seriously wrong. We have the mystery of the missing baby which becomes all the more suspicious when we find that the baby’s uncle, the local doctor, has a belief in eugenics and wishes to help cleanse the race of sub-standard children. And we also have the very strong character of Theordore Hildebrandt, a classic flawed but very effective detective who has to find a way investigating the highly regarded doctor and his family despite his lowly position as a constable.
In some ways I was reminded of some of the better Scandi-crime novels while I read A Wolf in Hindelheim, but this book is definitely in the category of “literary ficiton” rather than “police procedural” (although it is that too). In setting this book in a 1926 Germany Jenny Mayhew chose a difficult time to write about and she has managed to pick out most of the themes of that period and focus them into one small community. We can see where the early trends she mentions are going to go – anti-Semitism, eugenics, emerging Fascist bands and for me, these elements raised this novel well above the vast numbers of run of the mill crime novels.
My only sorrow is that with his infirmities and his age, Theodore Hildebrandt is not going to appear in another book. Had Jenny Mayhew made him a few years younger and less infirm, there was the potential to make A Wolf in Hildebrandt the first novel in a long-running series with many more plot opportunities as the road is built and the community takes off in new directions into the 1930s. I would like to read some more!
I would be exaggerating if I said that this book is perfect. My only quibble is that the ending tends to peter out and I wonder if it wouldn’t have been possible to cut out sixty pages or so and make the ending a little crisper. The author maintains her quality of writing to the end but I think a little more editing would have helped. Other readers will of course disagree and in any case it’s only a small criticism problem.
As for the setting, I was reminded of Michael Hanek’s 2009 film The White Ribbon which also captures the atmosphere of a between-the-wars German village with its rigid morals, class-ridden social structures and stultifying atmosphere. I watched this film earlier this year and reading a Wolf in Hindelheim was like stepping into the film but in the richer, more engaging way that only a book can give. I’ve embedded the trailer for The White Ribbon below: