Something was happening in this place where nothing happened.
So, it might be a cliché to say that a novel from the very first line entranced me, but I promise it is true in this case. A Wolf in Hindelheim is a perfect mix of great storytelling, beautiful writing, intriguing characters, and a touch of quirkiness. It is set in the fictional village of Hindelheim in southwest Germany in 1926. As the quote above suggests, it is a quiet uneventful place, still isolated, just, from the advances of modernity. The new road under construction means we are glimpsing the last days of this ‘old’ world.
There are many strands to the story but the central event is a missing baby. The Constable and his deputy are summoned to the Koenig household to take the report. Constable Theodore Hildebrandt is a troubled man; within the first few pages we find him telling his reflection that he is not afraid of it. This is a lie. He is troubled physically by the appalling injuries he suffered at war. His body is neither whole nor wholly his own. His mind rebels against his circumstances; petty rivalries with his superiors, power struggles within his own household, the futility of resistance. This case brings out the best and worst in the man.
From the initial report the story spins out. Theo makes enquiries about the case that are beyond his remit as a lowly constable. The tension and friction between him and those he works for and with is increased by the sensitive nature of this particular case. Theo is a man who has created his own morality, which fits imperfectly with his designated role. He thinks too much and too independently to be a reliable cog in the wheels of authority. His transgressions threaten not only his own position, but that of his son’s too. Klaus is son and deputy to Theo. With a wife and a baby on the way, Klaus wants to impress and progress. There is a clash between old and new ways of getting things done; by the book is the new way and Klaus can live with that.
The clash of cultures is a recurring theme. Progress bumps up against tradition in many ways. Backward looking superstition and forward thinking rationality battle it out too. Although whether believing in wolfmen is more odd than putting faith in eugenics is just one of the ways in which the ambiguities of progress are drawn out. Hysteria is whipped up by the media in ways that are both very modern and look back to the heyday of pamphleteering and chapbooks. The suspicions about the local shopkeeper Elias Frankel are both a product of historic fears and new politically-inspired ones. I loved the way the tension between the past and future was displayed.
This novel has so much contained within it, there’s even a tentative and touching love story (or stories), that it is hard to do it any justice in a review. It is beautifully written, held me in its grasp throughout, and left me the richer for reading it. It’s about individuals, and communities, and societies. It’s about folklore and politics, desires and convictions, right and wrong – and the often small steps in between them.
A Wolf in Hindelheim is available now in Hardback; thank you very much to the publisher for sending an advance copy to me.