Book review: The Black Path, by Åsa Larsson

1 01 2018

Åsa Larsson is a Swedish crime fiction writer and former tax lawyer. She has twice won the Best Swedish Crime Novel Award and has written approximately a dozen books; she’s best known for her five ‘Rebecka Martinsson’ crime novels, the first two of which, The Savage Altar and The Blood Spilt, I’ve reviewed previously.

TheBlackPath

The Black Path (Svart stig, 2006, translated by either (!) Marlaine Delargy (title page) or Laurie Thompson (back cover)) opens with the discovery of a woman’s frozen body in an ice-fishing hut on Torneträsk. The woman is soon identified as Inna Wattrang, a financier for the strongly-performing Kallis Mining concern; she’s been electrocuted and stabbed through the heart. Kiruna police detective Anna-Maria Mella is put in charge of the investigation, and she enlists the help of Rebecka Martinsson (now in self-imposed exile from her position as a Stockholm tax lawyer, following the traumatic events of the preceding two books) to sift through the financial details of Wattrang’s recent past in the hope of finding a motive for her killing. It’s less a Martinsson book than a Mella procedural, but it arguably focusses most closely on the life stories of Inna and of those who, one way or another, are connected to her death.

Larsson works with a lot of viewpoint characters, chops unpredictably between backstory told in present tense (and sometimes first person) and unfolding action told in past tense: this, it has to be said, has every potential to go catastrophically wrong. And yet the writing is superb. Larsson is fully in command of the story, which is gripping from the outset: her ability to drill into the innermost thoughts and motivations of an extremely wide range of characters is astonishingly good, and the ease with which the narrative flicks from introspection to graphic and gritty activity is decidedly disconcerting. It helps, too, that The Black Path‘s scenario is divergent from the previous two books: a third successive novel exploring gruesome murder among the clerics of Northern Sweden would, I think, have typecast the series rather too tightly.

The thing I find most appealing about Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson novels is that they function both as full-blown crime novels and as serious literature which happens to be peppered with unflinching brutality. (It’s a trick reminiscent in some ways of Iain Banks’ work, though their writing styles are very different.) The least appealing thing is the notion that, three books in, I now only have two more Åsa Larsson novels to go (in English translation, at least). If you’re looking for a gateway into Scandinavian crime fiction, this is one of the best.

 

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