Book review: Stockholm Noir, ed. Nathan Larson & Carl-Michael Edenborg

25 11 2016

Akashic Books’ ‘noir’ anthology series now numbers several dozen volumes, each employing as a backdrop a different city, each edited by someone who knows that city and its writers well.

stockholm-noir

There are thirteen stories in Stockholm Noir. I’ll provide brief commentary on each of them before offering a summation.

Åke Edwardson’s Stairway from Heaven is shot through (pun unintended) with noir tones, as a wealthy woman, Rebekah, offers the narrator (‘Peter Kampinsky’) a substantial sum of money to find a friend of hers, John. Kampinsky takes the assignment—money is always useful in his line of work—but Rebekah grows impatient with his methods, and things go pear-shaped. Edwardson has several crime novels to his name, none of which I’ve yet read. I’m impressed with Stairway, though, which opens the anthology very effectively.

Still in Kallhäll, by Johan Theorin (whose The Darkest Room I quite enjoyed), sets in play an inheritance ruse, as Klas manoeuvres to knock off his ditzy girlfriend’s grandfather, who owns an enviably-central apartment which, really, all things considered, is more-or-less going to waste. This one didn’t work so well for me: Theorin seems to be pushing for comic effect with the brash, somewhat cartoonish characterisation, and the result lacks the depths his more serious work is able to attain.

Martin Holmén’s The Smugglers features characters from his debut novel Clinch, as a young man waits at a pub’s table for what he feels certain is his doom. This is a powerfully atmospheric historical piece which tells just enough to leave the reader distinctly unsettled.

The Splendors and Miseries of a Swedish Crime Writer, by Malte Persson, is another somewhat tongue-in-cheek (not to say self-referential) piece, as the narrator, a struggling crime writer, is contacted by his high-achieving ex-girlfriend who wants to meet up. Things go bad, of course. This one works, more or less, and offers some good-natured digs at the genre for good measure.

Anna-Karin Selberg’s Horse is mysterious and primal, as a woman (orphaned as a child in a drugland slaying) intercepts a heroin kingpin. It’s effective, though I can’t be sure that it isn’t a fragment of a larger piece.

From the Remains, by Inger Edelfeldt, is paranormal / urban fantasy, in which the narrator, a writer, finds a teenage girl living in her intolerably-cold summer cottage. It told too much, didn’t show enough, for my liking, nor did it hew to the core of noir.

Northbound, by Lena Wolff, is a nicely-written but rather disturbing report of a dating-site liaison, as the narrator decides to travel north from her Malmö home to hook up with the frankly revolting Caliban. If it’s true that some matches are made in Heaven, the opposite must also be true.

Torbjörn Elensky’s Kim has the narrator at a loose end in Gamla Stan on a summer evening, when he (or she: the narrator’s gender isn’t revealed) receives a phone call from an androgynous stranger, Kim, who’s being held captive and abused at an undisclosed nearby location. Kim begs for the narrator’s help …

In Black Ice, by Inger Frimansson, elderly widow Maj is alone in her large hilltop house when she hears someone moving around in the basement garage. There’s nobody there, of course, but when she returns upstairs some of her belongings are not as she’d left them. This story has a good sense of atmosphere, though it didn’t fully convince.

The Wahlberg Disease, by Carl Johan De Geer, refers to the migraines suffered by the photographer Arne Walhberg, whose Drottninggatan workspace and ailment the narrator has inherited. This doesn’t seem a deeply noirish story, and it rambles somewhat, but it also provides perhaps the most sharply-visual sense of place of any of the anthology’s contributions.

In Nineteen Pieces, by co-editor Carl-Michael Edenborg, Agneta Bengtsson is a middle-aged policewoman with a substance abuse problem and, it seems, a postal delivery problem: someone has begun sending her, on a daily basis, parcels containing amateurishly-butchered meat. The story is certainly appropriately dark, but it didn’t really work for me.

Unni Drougge’s Death Star traces the awkward interaction between Berit, who witnesses a young woman falling to her death from a building in the derelict canal district, and Rafel, a welder who works in one of the district’s businesses. This is a visceral and fairly effective piece.

Co-editor Nathan Larson’s 10/09/03 follows its jaded protagonist through the planning and execution of a savage political assassination in Stockholm’s NK department store. The writing is admirably propulsive, the story carries a sharp edge, but the narrator’s hyperworldly cynicism felt overdone. A dash of moderation would, I felt, have resulted in a stronger ending, both for the story and the book.

Anthologies are always a mixed bag, one way or another: there will be pieces which resonate more with the reader, others which seem somehow misplaced, or perhaps unfinished. This is true of Stockholm Noir (as is the habitual disclaimer that those stories I preferred might not be so much to another’s taste), but it does seem as though the overall compilation is a fairly solid sampler, with the highlights (for my money) being the stories by Edwardson, Holmén, Selberg, Wolff, and De Geer, in which the characterisation, the setting, and the ever-present sense of impending disaster transcend the gritty shock-and-awe affrontery that appears to mark the editors’ preferences.

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