Book review: The Gingerbread House, by Carin Gerhardsen

20 07 2017

Carin Gerhardsen is a Swedish crime novelist and former mathematician and IT consultant, best known for her ‘Hammarby series’ of murder mysteries set in the Stockholm suburb of that name and featuring Detective Chief Inspector Conny Sjöberg. The series now stands at eight books in the original Swedish (and, I think, in German translation); currently only the first three have been translated into English.

GingerbreadHouse

The Gingerbread House (Pepparkakshuset, 2008, translated by Paul Norlen) marks the first instalment in the Hammarby series. It opens with a carefully-etched depiction of childhood cruelty and segues into a brutal murder which, from the outset, is plainly retributive. Sjöberg and his team begin the investigation with no connection apparent between the victim and the site of the assault, and no apparent motive for the slaying of someone undemonstrably successful and lacking in known enemies. Over the next fortnight, three more deadly attacks occur, by various methods and scattered around central Sweden, but they are not immediately connected by the police to the initial slaying of Hans Vannerberg. (That connection is made, for the reader, by the inclusion of the killer’s diary which establishes the common motive for the assaults.)

I enjoyed the characterisation in The Gingerbread House. The principal viewpoint characters employed are senior officer Sjöberg, junior team member Petra Westman, and the murderer. Conny Sjöberg would appear to be a rarity in Scandinavian crime fiction—a happily married police officer—but there’s enough complexity to his character to ensure his is an interesting perspective, as too is Westman’s. The murderer’s diary entries, while providing an undeniably hard edge to what could otherwise be a tidy police procedural, actually have the effect of slowing the story somewhat, and I felt while reading that this material could either have been abridged or excised completely—we alreday know, from the outset, why the murders are occurring. Having finished the book, I think I see the reason for their inclusion.

Gerhardsen’s writing is evocative and engaging, with considerable emphasis placed on portraying the murderer as a tragic figure whose motivation is understandable, almost inescapable. In tone, the book has certain similarities to the work of Norwegian crime novelist Karin Fossum—DCI Sjöberg could well be Fossum’s Konrad Sejer with a happier homelife—and also Karin Alvtegen, for whom the psychology of the perpetrator is a primary focus. There is, in fact, an intriguing connection between The Gingerbread House (2008) and Alvtegen’s Shadow (2007), with both books relaying an identical anecdote involving the dilemma faced by a woman seeking to gain boat passage across a crocodile-infested river to visit her boyfriend. In each case, the anecdote, relayed at a social gathering, is presented as an ethics test designed to provide an insight into the psychological makeup of principal characters. (A bit of Google-based research will show that the anecdote in question is fairly widely known in social-science circles as ‘The Alligator River Story’, which asks the participant to rate the behaviour of the five characters in the story from best to worst.) I suspect the inclusion of the anecdote in both books is more an example of convergent evolution than of anything more sinister—given the evident interest of both Gerhardsen and Alvtegen in the detailed exploration of criminal psychology and the backstory to criminality, it’s understandable that the same widely-known ethics exercise might find its way into two different stories, but it does give the reader momentary pause on encountering it in a second book.

This is, overall, a promising first instalment to what would seem to be an interesting series, and one of which I hope we see more in English translation than merely the three books currently available.

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