While various major literary critics have lauded Grant’s twisted gothic fairytale, my own response to this murder mystery-cum-horror story is tepid. While Grant gorgeously captures the essence of life in the small German town of Bad MunsterEifel, rife with gossip and sly innuendo, the power of the novel is muted by a series of telegraphed plot twists which mostly accelerate the story into young adult territory.
The novel begins with the unthinkable. Oma Kristel, Pia’s Kolvenbach’s frosted pink mohair-bosomed
grandmother, is obliterated at her family’s Advent dinner when she unexpectedly explodes in a column of flames. Her death, as sudden as it is horrid,
is just too much for Pia’s family. While Pia is forced to drag her lurid history around with her like a ball and chain, her British mother wanders around like someone in a dream, remaining weirdly fascinated and shocked by Oma’s death.
A chilly premonition begins to overtake Pia. At school, she endures the whispers and the eyes of her classmates, the silence
around her almost palpable as the other children keep a safe distance. Her only friend is Stefan “StinkStefan” Breuer, who as the story progresses becomes her trusted and loyal partner in crime.
What really thrusts Pia into a life of danger is the sudden vanishing of Katharina Linden, a girl at Pia’s school. Bathed in the sun’s cold, pale February glow and dressed as the perfect Snow White, it almost seems like a vision from a fairy tale the day she disappears.
Pia is convinced there’s a connection between the disappearance of Katharina and the enigmatic and sprightly Herr Schiller, with his mercurial stories of hidden secrets, terrible fates and eternal hauntings. Sitting in his dimly lit
but fascinating old house, both Pia and Stefan are haunted by Schiller’s grim tales
as, amid hot coffee and chocolate, he seems intent to plunge them into realm of spirits, ghosts, witches and monsters, a world of danger and darkness that can only be conquered with a stout heart and a strong faith.
Other children go missing, and Bad Munstereifel begins to get a reputation as "a place of terror." After all, this is small town where everyone knows everyone else, where you shouldn't have to worry about your children - or so everyone thought. Fearful for her daughter and regardless of her protestations, Pia’s mother packs her off to Middlesex in the hope
that she will be safe with her British grandmother. Despite being so far from home, Pia remains steadfast in her determination to help find Katharina Linden -
and she’s convinced that Herr Schiller might have some clues.
From then on, it’s Pia and Stefan against the world. There’s an empty house in the dark of night, an underground passageway, and a darkened well
from which there is no hope of escape. There’s also another secret place, where perhaps the missing girls are laid out like “a repeating series of Snow Whites.”
Unseen presences call up the devil in a world of spectral huntsmen, fiery men, and a large, foul-tempered, inky-black cat
which is probably not really a cat.
Pia plays the lead role in this drama as death closes in on her, but Herr Schiller’s magical legends
are what give the story its dramatic weight. Less interesting is Pia and Stefan’s murky and stereotypical foray into the decaying underbelly of Bad Munstereifel. More thought-provoking, however, are the Anglo-German themes centering on the trials of Pia’s mother, who doesn’t quite fit in to her German surroundings. In the end, Grant’s
intended target audience appears most perplexing. It’s unclear to me whether she’s writing for adults or for younger readers. Still, there
is considerable storytelling potential on display here, even when the resolution to the missing girls comes across as predictable and contrived.