Book review(s): two Scandinavian murder mysteries

8 09 2016

Another doubled-up Scandicrime book review. This time the authors are of different nationalities (Norwegian versus Swedish), but there’s more than just a coincidence of name that they share: both books are concerned with astute, unconventional women who prefer, one way or another, to live on the margins. And with brutal acts of bloody murder. (And, tangentially, with ponytailed men: what’s with that?)

InTheDarkness

Karin Fossum, who won the (Nordic crime) Glass Key Award in 1996, is a Norwegian crime fiction writer and poet who has also worked in healthcare and drug rehabilitation. She’s probably best known for her ‘Inspector Sejer’ series of novels.

In the Darkness (Evas Øye, ‘Eva’s Eye’, 1995, translated by James Anderson) is Fossum’s debut novel—though it followed several volumes of poetry—and the first of the ‘Inspector Sejer’ series. Sejer seems a distinctly more kindly and inherently approachable person than other notable Scandinavian sleuths such as Wallander and Erlendur (he has more in common, I think, with Patrik Hedström from Camilla Läckberg’s ‘Fjällbacka’ series), but he’s arguably not the principal character in Darkness, which focusses on the predicament, and indeed the mental state, of the bohemian artist Eva Magnus, who on discovering, with her daughter Emma, the waterlogged and badly decomposing body of a man being carried by spring melt down the town’s river, elects to phone not the police (as she tells her daughter) but rather her elderly father. It transpires that the corpse (once the police have been notified of it by some more civic-minded, less unorthodox citizen) is that of brewery worker Egil Einarsson, first reported missing six months previously and now revealed to have been brutally murdered. It transpires also that Einarsson was last seen alive just three days after the death by suffocation of call-girl (and Eva’s childhood friend) Maja Durban, the town’s only other notable unsolved homicide. Could the two deaths be connected in some manner? And what kind of danger has Eva found herself in?

Fossum’s prose is a pleasure to read—the long(ish) description that opens the book’s second chapter, an unhurried river’s-eye-view of the town central to the novel’s unravelling, is exquisite—and the ensemble cast, headed up by Eva and Sejer, is well fleshed out. This is a very accomplished first novel, and seems a logical starting point from which to explore the Inspector Sejer series. The central crime is fully explored and resolved within the book’s pages, but two or three significant background strands of plot (which, in order to avoid spoilishness, I won’t enumerate further) are left largely hanging, which detracted from my enjoyment of the ending. Of course, in life not all details will be tidied away with decorous expedience, but one is, I think, entitled to some untidiness in life which cannot generally be extended to fiction, nor specifically to a murder mystery novel. Notwithstanding this sense of frayed edges, In the Darkness is a compelling book, elegantly expressed, and Sejer is a promising focal figure for a series of this type.

Missing

Karin Alvtegen is a Swedish crime fiction writer, teleplay writer, and grandniece of Astrid Lindgren. Her Glass-Key-award-winning book Missing (Saknad, 2000, translated by Anna Paterson) is her second novel, though it appears to have been the first translated into English.

Sibylla Forsenström, the banished only daughter from a wealthy but psychologically damaging family, is, as the book opens, a high-functioning homeless woman, accustomed to living off her wits on the streets of Stockholm, and doing rather well by it. But she has the misfortune to choose as her mark, one evening at Stockholm’s Grand Hotel, the same middle-aged businessman whom an obsessive and brutal serial killer has selected for butchery. She is the last person to have been witnessed in the doomed businessman’s company, her prints are on his room key, and she is completely without alibi: thus, on the run, she becomes not merely the prime suspect but the only suspect. Her sole imperative is to stay hidden—something for which, after fifteen years of practice, she has a natural aptitude—until the police can find a killer they are not searching for. But there is only so long that she can hope to remain at large before her luck runs out …

Missing is, ultimately, a murder mystery, but for much of its span it’s a tale of simple (or not-so-simple) survival, told partly as Sibylla is on the run, seeking refuge in those of her old haults that she considers safe, alone or with those of her outsider colleagues in whom she feels she can place some minimal trust, and partly in flashback as Sibylla experiences an adolescence that is alternately pampered and bruising. She’s an engaging, sympathetically flawed character whose strengths may not suffice to keep her from the arms of the police, or of someone yet worse. Alvtegen’s insights into the lives of the homeless feel credible and detailed, and most of the book’s twists and turns devolve naturally from Sibylla’s need to stay one step ahead of the police. And the somewhat unorthodox focus on flight, rather than on deduction, gives the story a sense of freshness. It’s well told, and emotionally satisfying, though (in some contrast to In the Darkness) I did feel that it was tied up a little too neatly at the end. (To clarify my respective niggles on this score, and without wanting to be overly prescriptive on these matters, I would expect that a murder mystery novel should reasonably resolve every significant plot point of relevance to the central crimes, while closing with the suggestion that the protagonists’ lives remain complicated. Both of these novels tested this expectation in ways I wouldn’t, as it were, expect.)

While I haven’t (yet) read any other books by either author, I have the strong suspicion that neither Eva nor Sibylla gets a return visit in later works. Which on one level is a pity, because they’re both strongly memorable characters.

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