Book review: Unknown, by Mari Jungstedt

8 08 2017

Mari Jungstedt is a Swedish journalist, TV presenter and crime fiction writer best known for her ‘Anders Knutas’ series of police procedurals set on the Swedish island of Gotland. The series now stands at thirteen books, the first nine of which have also been published in English translation. I’ve previously reviewed Unseen and Unspoken, the first two books in the series.

Unknown

Unknown (Den inre kretsen, 2005, translated by Tiina Nunnally) is the third of the Anders Knutas books; it goes under the alternative title of The Inner Circle (which is a more direct translation of the Swedish title) in the US. The book opens with the discovery of a brutal example of animal cruelty: a farm pony, a beloved family pet, has been decapitated during the brief summer night by some unknown intruder. To add an additional grisly dimension, the pony’s head has been removed not just from the pony, but from the scene. Knutas and his team—Maria Jacobsson, Wittberg, Sohlman and the others—commence an investigation, but little progress is made before a competing demand is placed on the Gotland police’s resources. A Dutch archaeology student, Martina Flochten, one of a group of twenty university students on a supervised summer dig on one of the island’s many Viking settlement sites, goes missing, in the middle of the night, on the walk between a restaurant and the hostel in which the group have been staying. As the days mount since her disappearance, concern for her welfare grows sharper; and then Martina is found, early one morning, by a fisherman’s dog …

Jungstedt is exceptionally good at the ensemble-cast crime novel: the reader never knows, when following the thoughts of a newly-introduced character, whether the individual may turn out to be victim, witness, or murderer, and yet any eventual revelations are credible and logically consistent. The writing is clean, smooth-flowing, vividly descriptive. The pace is not particularly fast—there are a lot of characters to introduce—but the tension is maintained effectively.

I should also note that, though the police are consistently focussed on the crime, the text is not: a parallel and occasionally interweaving thread in the books is the developing relationship between reporter Johan Berg and teacher Emma Winarve, a strand that provides useful respite from the details of the investigation while managing not to distract overly from the central case.

It is, on the evidence of the first three books, a very well-written series, even if I do have the concern that, a dozen or more books in, the ongoing sequence of major and unusual crimes on what is, after all, an island with a permanent population of fewer than sixty thousand people might well see Gotland turned into the Swedish Midsomer, with a body count sufficient to alarm actuarists, demographers, and insurers. Still, there are plenty more books in the series to consider before such an assessment could be contemplated.

 





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.