Since her unfortunate foray into the forest with brother Hansel (aka Hans), Gretel has grown up—and out. It seems that Gretel’s sweet tooth has morphed into a meat tooth, her frequent feasting on the best that Bavarian butchers have to offer served up by Hans, now an excellent cook and an even better quaffer of beer and schnapps. (Gretel blames his drinking problem on the low self-esteem Hans has suffered since having to be rescued from the witch’s oven by his then-little sister.) Despite her height and girth, the now thirtysomething fairy-tale icon manages to outfit herself elaborately and fashionably whenever she reluctantly leaves her daybed.
But I—and author P. J. Brackston—digress! This is crime fiction after all, and so Gretel must earn her bread and butter and weisswurst as a private investigator for hire in her home hamlet of Gesternstadt, circa 1776. Surely, she will poke into the mysterious fire at the local cart-maker’s workshop. But, no, Gretel has her eyes out for cats—the three gone missing from the kitty-cluttered residence of her only paying customer, Frau Hapsburg. Thankfully, the two cases converge when Gretel finds a bell, not unlike those worn by the frau’s felines, amid the ashen rubble. Oh, and yes, there’s also that charred unclaimed corpse with a finger missing.
In this “prequel” to her Gretel and the Case of the Missing Frog Prints, Brackston (who is also a writer of romantic historical fantasy) has re-entered territory that is Grimm, but storytelling that is not. Tongue and other sandwich fillings firmly in cheek, she playfully updates classic childhood characters from a contemporary adult’s perspective, including Jack of beanstalk fame’s overlooked younger sister, a crone who cackles for cash, a lascivious troll with hygiene issues, a covetous giant with a speech impediment, and a fair princess who is anything but. Though Gretel spends as much time planning a meal and her wardrobe as working a lead, once she has been accused of kidnapping and murder and threatened with torture and hanging, she gets the job done. And so does Brackston, with an enchanting take on what happens after “happily ever after.”