Two more Swedish crime books. The common ground in these stories is their setting, on the large islands (Öland, connected to the mainland by a six-kilometre bridge, and Gotland, whose eastern shore is almost as close to Latvia as it is to the Swedish mainland) off Sweden’s south-east coast. These are, nonetheless, contrasting stories, both in theme and tone: one is concerned with the desperate hunt to identify and detain a mysterious serial killer, in the build-up to the height of the summer tourist season; the other tangles with the ghosts of the past, while a gang of thieves and vandals lay waste to the holiday homes of wealthy mainlanders as autumn segues into a bitter winter.
Mari Jungstedt is a journalist and writer who has written around a dozen crime novels, including a series featuring the detectives Anders Knutas and Karin Jacobsson and the TV reporter Johan Berg. Her work has been televised on Swedish and German TV. Unseen (Den du inte ser, 2003, translated by Tiina Nunnally) is her first novel, and the first in the Knutas / Jacobsson / Berg series.
Following a disastrous party which terminates in a drunken altercation between her partner and her old schoolfriend, Helena Hillerström takes the dog for an early-morning walk along the west Gotland beach near the cabin she shares with Per Berglund. But neither Helena nor the dog gets to return to the cabin: they are ambushed and slain by an axe-wielding killer on the deserted beach. Suspicion initally falls on her boyfriend Per, and on Kristian, the other participant in the party’s fight, who has already left the country when the police begin their investigation. But a second murder, of Frida Lindh, a hairdresser recently arrived from Stockholm, occurs late at night a week later, while Per is still in custody and Kristian is in Copenhagen. Though the means of death are shockingly similar, there seems nothing which connects Helena and Frida other than their age and the coincidence that both have moved from Stockholm to Gotland within the past year. Knutas and Jacobsson must try to find the killer before any more violent deaths can occur.
Unseen is wonderfully written, in clear compelling prose, with a taut, multiply-stranded plot, a profusion of tantalising items of evidence, and a multiplicity of character viewpoints that lifts it out of the ‘police procedural’ category. Jungstedt’s background in TV journalism shows, too, in the strand exploring Berg’s efforts to elucidate information on the crimes that the police are not yet ready to divulge. It’s a very well-crafted piece of fiction, and serves as an excellent introduction to what would seem to be a highly promising murder mystery series. The cover blurb compares Jungstedt to Henning Mankell; I feel a more apt comparison would be the work of Åsa Larsson, whose The Savage Altar (another highly polished debut) I reviewed some months ago. There’s also some common ground with Camilla Läckberg’s Fjällbacka series, with Jungstedt’s incisive handling of a romantic sub-plot that, as it happens, heightens rather than distracts from the unfolding tension.
Johan Theorin, another journalist / novelist, is the author of several books, including the ‘Öland Quartet’, a set of four loosely-connected books which blend crime with a hint of the supernatural. The Darkest Room (Nattfåk, 2008, translated by Marlaine Delargy) is the second in the Quartet, and has won Swedish and international crime writing awards.
Joakim and Katrine Westin and their two young children have recently moved from Stockholm to the ‘manor house’, a renovators’ dream at Eel Point on eastern Öland. The house is steeped in history and atmosphere, and they have no regrets at having left the big city far behind them. But tragedy strikes when Joakim is away picking up the last of their belongings from their old Stockholm apartment, and he drives back to the island having learnt that Livia, his young daughter, has drowned in mysterious circumstances. He has heard this terrible news from a young policewoman, Tilda Davidsson, who has begun to investigate a series of increasingly audacious and violent break-ins on the island. There is nothing connecting the Westins to these break-ins, until the thieves elect to turn their attention to Eel Point. But it begins to appear that the living may not be the only unwanted guests about to descend upon the manor house …
The Darkest Room is a seriously spooky book, which I’d recommend not be read while you’re the only one in the house, particularly if you happen to live near a derelict lighthouse. (The closest parallel among other Scandicrime books I’ve read would probably be Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea, which is also disconcertingly atmospheric.) I’m not normally a fan of ‘ghost stories’, and The Darkest Room certainly has the flavour of phantoms about it, but it’s also a subtle and well-framed story that takes its time to reveal its true nature, underpinned by an exceptionally well-concealed crime. Like Unseen, it employs a multiplicity of character viewpoints: this, and the lack of an obvious overarching criminal act, makes the story slow to become immersive, but it does reward the reader’s patience. The book’s third act is painfully suspenseful: Theorin uses his multiple-viewpoint approach here to maximum effect, as the story’s various players converge on Eel Point while an approaching blizzard threatens mayhem of its own.
Theorin also does a very good job of exploring his setting, including a treatment of the forces of nature that vividly highlights the power and the danger associated with the midwinter storms; arguably, the island is as much a character within the book as its human participants. Of those humans, the reactions of the Westin family to their tragedy are detailed, idiosyncratic, and plausible, while Tilda Davidsson is an intriguing and realistically flawed detective figure (though I’m not sure if she features in the other books of the Quartet).
It’s interesting to note that, while Unseen has the more overtly vicious sequence of crimes, The Darkest Room has the more distinctly sinister narrative. I enjoyed Jungstedt’s writing from the outset; Theorin’s needed to win me over. Ultimately, though, they both work well.