This is the fourth book in a series of police procedurals involving the German detectives Pia Kirchhoff and Oliver von Bodenstein, although the first to be translated into English. (Why do publishers do this?). It starts when a young man, Tobias Sartorius, is released from a 10-year prison sentence following his conviction for murdering two young girls. This is already a bit unbelievable on two counts: the shortness of the sentence and the fact that the bodies of the girls were never found. Tobias rashly returns to the small claustrophobic village of Altenhain, near Frankfurt, where he previously lived. Remarkably, this is a real place and one wonders what the villagers' reactions to this book were when they discovered they had been portrayed as deceitful, vicious and utterly without morals.
Tobias's return is greeted with hostility, which is greatly strengthened when within days another young girl disappears. Then his mother is pushed off a railway bridge and a host of old animosities are reopened. Tobias has two supporters who doubt his involvement in the original murders or the latest disappearance. One is Nadia, an old school friend, now a famous actress, who has always been in love with Tobias, and Nathalie, a newcomer to the village, who bear a striking resemblance to one of the earlier victims. They both set out to prove his innocence. By this stage the plot is getting overly complicated with too many characters, the relevance of some of whom is unclear. It is not helped by frequently switching from surnames to first names and even sometimes nicknames, and by a style that divides the action into short disjoint sections.
The relation between the various crimes begins to emerge via an increasingly convoluted series of coincidences, but as it does credibility of the plot falls. It involves a bewildering array of unlikely characters, including an autistic teenager with a remarkable ability to paint, a cold calculating `squire' who seems to have a hold over many of the villagers, a female doctor who projects an image of benevolence, but in reality is far from that, and several `friends' who, only after 10 years, show some remorse. The final stages contain a torrent of frenzied activity, with the police rushing from location to location, but failing to tie things together, although some of the clues have been around for 10 years. You can call these twists and turns if you like, but I prefer the analogy of a headless chicken.
In addition to the main plot, there is a quite a lot about the private lives of the two main characters, which although mildly interesting, add little to the overall story, but do contribute to the overly long text. The translation grates in many places to English ears, but that's inevitable, as it has clearly been aimed at the larger American market. The cover of this book says that it has sold three million copies in German. I wonder how many regretted their decision?