Book review: A Wolf in Hindelheim by Jenny Mayhew

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HISTORICAL crime fiction is enjoying something of a golden moment, and with her often ingenious and unusual debut novel, Jenny Mayhew adds significantly to the genre.

A Wolf in Hindelheim

BY Jenny Mayhew

Hutchinson, 352pp, £12.99

It’s not her use of pre-Nazi attitudes in her 1926 German village that does this – her twin focus is anti-semitism and eugenics, which pretty much everyone associates with the Nazis. Rather, it’s her indulgence of elements we normally associate with contemporary Nordic crime drama: a small town, slow pace, much introspection, that all give her tale something extra.

Constable Theodore Hildebrandt and his deputy, Klaus, who also happens to be his son, have been called to the isolated rural home shared by two couples, Johanna and Heinrich Muller, and Peter and Ute Koenig. Peter and Joanna are brother and sister; Peter is a doctor. But the newborn baby belonging to Joanna and Heinrich has gone missing whilst being watched by Peter and Joanna’s elderly mother. The close family situation is reflected throughout the village – its main store is run by a young Jewish man, Elias Frankel, whose mother was a close friend of Peter and Joanna’s father before he died.

A few days later, the baby is found dead in the log pile in the barn; the Mullers and the Koenigs believe that their elderly mother, who is suffering dementia, must have taken the baby and left it there by accident in her confusion. Hildebrandt is not so sure and when Elias Frankel is arrested by another policeman, Zelinsky, vying for Hildebrandt’s job, and subsequently escapes, his own doubts are mirrored by the village’s uncertainty. Except the village moves in a different direction: Elias, the long-time outsider who once claimed he saw a wolf in the woods, is condemned by gossip and as people talk, he becomes known as the “wolf man”.

Through quiet discussion, Hildebrandt learns that Peter is a believer in eugenics – his sister’s other child is a young boy who is severely brain damaged. At this point, Mayhew’s narrative flags a little as it’s easy to anticipate what is going to result from this, and who the real culprit behind the death of the new baby, who also showed signs of physical and mental deformity, may be. While her prose style begins a little hesitantly, though, with a heavier reliance on adjectives than necessary, her narrative does gain in confidence. What it needs here is something to make it that little bit more compelling, slightly more psychologically intriguing.

Eventually, some of that is provided, as Hildebrandt’s feelings for Ute increase and revelations about both the Mullers’ and the Keonigs’ marriages are made. Mayhew also hints at a certain kind of future for Hildebrandt’s son, who will not take seriously his father’s warnings about Zelinsky, and who may well become exactly the kind of disaffected, disenchanted young man vulnerable to Nazi propaganda about the Jews. Mayhew says in a short foreword to her novel that she was partly inspired by “the ways an individual might get drawn into irrational thinking, especially under certain social pressures and circumstances.” To that end, she employs a simple man, Eckhardt Grohlick as a “kind of guinea pig” for this “imaginative experiment” – Elias Frankel asks Grohlick to look after his store when he is arrested. But a young member of a new right-wing group soon moves in on him, with his anti-semitic views.

This part is almost meatier than the death of the baby, which begins to fall away as a narrative ploy. As with the Nordic crime dramas, Mayhew is more interested in the machinations of a small place, whose often medieval-seeming attitudes cause real harm. The association of Elias with a wolf may have come from the man’s own lips, but his sighting becomes an excuse to separate him further from his fellow villagers in their minds, to associate him with dangerous animals, and in turn, with the devil.

It’s greatly to Mayhew’s credit that she makes what are effectively the beginnings of the Holocaust to come in ten years’ time or so, look as small, as seemingly inconsequential, and as horribly believable, as they are here. Her novel’s ending keeps her options about a possible sequel open, and I can only assume that the few hints we are given about Hildebrandt’s traumatic back story – he is a damaged war veteran, his skin burnt and his insides, put back together on the battlefield, “patched up with borrowed or mistaken fragments of other men’s flesh”, to create a shell where “the spirits of several dead soldiers had crawled inside to find a new home” – will be given more room for manoeuvre.