Book review: Still Waters, by Viveca Sten

23 08 2017

Viveca Sten is a Swedish lawyer and crime fiction novelist best known for her ‘Sandhamn Murders’ series, featuring police officer Thomas Andreasson and his friend financial lawyer Nora Linde, set on and around Sandhamn, an island in the Stockholm archipelago with a winter population of around a hundred and a summer population of two or three thousand. The ‘Sandhamn Murders’ series currently stands at eight books, of which the first four have seen English translation.

StillWaters

Still Waters (I de lugnaste vatten, 2008, translated by Marlaine Delargy) opens with the drowning of the reclusive Krister Berggren, in a manner which quite clearly indicates foul play; yet when his body is recovered from the waters off Sandhamn a few months later, there’s nothing about the corpse to suggest that the death was anything but accidental. Nonetheless, the police open an investigation to attempt to determine the circumstances of Berggren’s death. When, a few days later, Krister’s next-of-kin, cousin Kiki Berggren, is also found dead, with signs of assault, in a Sandhamn bed-and-breakfast, it becomes obvious that there’s more to the drowning than has previously surfaced. But with the only people who could shed significant light on the deaths dead, how are Thomas Andreasson and his colleagues to find the killer?

Still Waters is somewhat reminiscent of the work of fellow Swedish crime novelist Camilla Läckberg, whose ‘Fjällbacka’ series similarly features a sequence of murders and other crimes in a picturesque location (the fishing and tourism village Fjällbacka) popular as a summer holiday destination. Also in keeping with Läckberg’s series, a substantial focus of the story arc is the juxtaposition of crime and romance: in Läckberg’s books, her protagonists (detective Patrik Hedström and writer Erica Falck) become an item quite early on, while the private lives of Sten’s principal protagonists (Andreasson and Linde) do not quite intersect romantically (at this point, at least) but are certainly explored in substantial detail. This is not to say, though, that Sten’s work is specifically derivative: while it fits quite comfortably into the trope of Swedish crime fiction (other echoes are the writers Mari Jungstedt and Helene Tursten, whose novels similarly blend murder and domesticity), its setting and characterisation are both sufficiently individualistic that Still Waters stands on its own right, and reveals itself as an accomplished debut with a well-researched plot and a comfortable depth of expert knowledge, with interesting local colour added for good measure. I’m inclined to think the plot in this novel could be a little too twisty for its own good, but it’s written well enough that this can be overlooked, and it has enough grit and gruesomeness to avoid falling into a ‘cosy crime’ categorisation. It will be interesting to see how the series develops.

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