Book review: Unspoken, by Mari Jungstedt

26 11 2016

Mari Jungstedt is a Swedish journalist and writer whose ‘Anders Knutas’ police procedurals have placed the large island of Gotland, a favoured summer-holiday location for Swedish mainlanders, firmly on the map as a locus of Scandinavian crime fiction. I’ve previously reviewed Jungstedt’s accomplished debut, Unseen, here.

unspoken

Unspoken (I den stilla natt, 2007, translated by Tiina Nunnally) is the second in Jungstedt’s long-running Anders Knutas series. It opens with a piece of very good fortune for alcoholic photographer Henry Dahlström (an eighty-thousand-kronor haul at the last trotting meet of the season, from a lucky sequence of bets), followed a day or so later by a piece of exceptionally bad fortune (an unexpected encounter with a brutally-wielded blunt instrument at the door to his basement darkroom). It’s several days before Dahlström’s decomposing body is found by one of his drinker mates, and Knutas’s team initially has very little to go on in the hunt for the killer. Nor is it possible to determine whether it’s premeditated murder, or merely the disastrous inadvertent outcome of a spontaneous drunken brawl. But then a horse-obsessed adolescent loner schoolgirl, Fanny Jansson, goes missing on her way home from the racing stables. Is there some kind of trackside connection between Henry’s murder and Fanny’s disappearance?

While the book naturally devotes the bulk of its narrative attention to the Dahlström and Jansson investigations (in which the most fully-fledged and interesting protagonists are Chief Inspector Knutas and his offsider Karin Jacobsson), a subsidiary thread focusses on the continuation of the adulterous relationship between Stockholm-based journalist Johan Berg and local housewife-and-mother Emma Wingarve. This isn’t entirely a gratuitous addition to the storyline—Berg is covering the crimes in Gotland, after all, and even makes his own active contribution to the investigation—but it’s not as intimately interwoven with the detectives’ efforts as was the case in Unseen, nor does it occupy such a substantial portion of the book. Still, it adds both colour and emotional depth to the novel, with the affair’s highs and lows expertly documented; and it cuts out at exactly the right point, setting matters up brilliantly for the sub-plot’s expected continuance in the third book. (On the evidence presented here, I’d say that Jungstedt could also turn her hand to romance writing, to very good effect, if she ever tired of crime.)

There are, perhaps, a few too many red herrings in Unspoken, but Jungstedt’s prose is beautifully smooth and expressive, and the crime that unfolds is unexpected yet fully plausible. It’s a wonderfully readable example of Swedish crime fiction, with which my only genuine quibble is a structural one: while the organisation of the book into chapters, each detailing the course of a day’s unfolding investigation into the crimes, is logical and sensible, the intercalation into some chapters of passages headed ‘Several months previously’, detailing elements of the backstory relating to Fanny Jansson’s disappearance, does seem clunky and a bit arbitrary. Otherwise, the book holds up as a finely-crafted and detailed depiction of the brutality that can lurk within the most tranquil, most civilised setting.

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