Book review: The Forgotten Dead, by Tove Alsterdal

17 12 2017

Tove Alsterdal is a Swedish journalist, dramatist, and crime fiction writer who has served a long apprenticeship as Liza Marklund’s beta reader and editor. Alsterdal has to date written four crime novels; the third of these, Låt mig ta din hand (2014), was awarded Best Swedish Crime Novel of the year. At present, only her debut novel has been published in English translation.

TheForgottenDead

The Forgotten Dead (Kvinnorna på stranden, 2009, translated by Tiina Nunnally), which apparently underwent a late-stage change in title—it was earlier identified by a straightforward translation of its Swedish title as The Women on the Beach, and can still be preordered under this name on a few slow-to-update online bookstores—is Alsterdal’s crime fiction debut. It follows seven-weeks-pregnant New York theatrical set designer Alena Campbell’s search for her husband Patrick, a freelance journalist who went missing in Paris, where he had been researching a story on people-smuggling. On her arrival in Paris, Alena’s first upfront inquiries into Patrick’s whereabouts are met with evasion and threats, so she resorts to subterfuge, and gradually a more detailed and disturbing picture seeps out …

This is a well-researched, nuanced, and moving story that juxtaposes Alena’s desperation with that of the undocumented asylum seekers hoping to carve out an existence for themselves within the loopholes and shadows of European society. It has a very contemporary feel—Alsterdal, I’m given to understand, updated the text prior to its English-language publication—and a well-constructed background of menace and corruption. The reader is never sure who among Alena’s contacts can be trusted until she herself learns this—often enough, the hard way. The sense of loss and of futility is vivid; and yet, the book retains a strong sense of positivism, largely by virtue of Alena’s unflinching determination to get to the ugly truth at the heart of Patrick’s disappearance. While I doubt that any one piece of fiction could fully convey the cruelty and opportunism of those who seek to profit from the desperation of asylum seekers, The Forgotten Dead offers considerable detail and depth on this subject as the background to a suspenseful and satisfying crime novel. The only point at which, for me, it breached plausibility was the occasion, quite early on in the novel, when Alena is able to voice a syllable-perfect recollection of two sentences in French, heard only once during her last distracted phone conversation with Patrick ten days previously, to a colleague so he can translate it for her. Other than this, the novel’s stagecraft appears flawless, its climax memorable.

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