The Vanishing of Katharina Linden is a whimsical mystery with a creepy underbent. It balances a scary proposition — little girls going missing in a small German town where everyone knows each other — with the idealistic naivete of its 10 year old protagonist, who understands on one level that the girls who go missing are her classmates, near and around her age, but doesn’t make the connection that she may herself be in a particular danger.
It’s this dramatic irony that propels the story, because the reader is deeply concerned and nervous for the actual safety of Pia, while she flouts her nervous mother’s activity restrictions and actively places herself in proximity to danger by thinking she and her friend can find clues and solve the murder. Her reasoning behind this is the kind of single-minded optimism that propels a young child: at the beginning of the story, there was a tragic accident involving her grandmother spontaneously catching fire at a near-Christmas family dinner. Because it’s a small town and word travels fast, and because children can be merciless, Pia is ostracized as the girl with the exploding grandmother, and it’s a disease that might catch, so stay away from Pia. Her only ally is the previously most unpopular kid, known as Stink Stefan, and rather fittingly of a kid adjusting to suddenly having no friends and having to turn to someone they once themselves disliked, Pia resents Stefan as much as she appreciates him. So, it’s armed with all of this that Pia decides to try to figure out what has happened to the girls. She believes that if she can solve the case, people will stop treating her like a pariah and will instead think of her as a hero.
If it sounds ridiculous to you that a ten year old can solve a case like this, that’s because it is. But the stubborn confidence Pia radiates as the narrator against the reader’s knowledge that what she’s doing is a deeply bad idea makes the book rather interesting. It’s a page-turner, for sure.