Book review: The Blood Spilt, by Åsa Larsson

2 02 2017

Åsa Larsson is a Swedish crime novelist whose background as a tax lawyer, and upbringing in Kiruna prior to employment in Stockholm, have substantially informed her fiction: the heroine of her novels, Stockholm-based tax lawyer Rebecka Martinsson, also grew up in Kiruna. This adherence to the ‘write what you know’ philosophy has served Larsson well: she’s won the Swedish Crime Writers’ Association prize for best first novel, while subsequent novels have twice won the Best Swedish Crime Novel award. I’ve previously reviewed her debut novel The Savage Altar here.

thebloodspilt

The Blood Spilt (Det blod som spillts, 2004, translated by Marlaine Delargy) is Rebecka’s second outing. She’s not travelling well: she gives every appearance, following the events of The Savage Altar, of suffering PTSD. Various of her more solicitous work colleagues try to help, but their well-meaning interventions only serve to make things worse. And so she finds herself, quite against her will, dragged back to the communities around Kiruna where her law firm is hoping to finalise a business arrangement with the church council. But there’s something beyond mere business in the wings, because Rebecka belatedly learns about the brutal murder, three months previously, of Mildred Nilsson, one of the local priests … Rebecka decides to stay on in one of the local villages when her colleague drives back to Stockholm. She’s not looking to solve the case, she’s just trying to come to terms with her past, but the case keeps confronting her.

Several of the supporting characters important to The Savage Altar also feature prominently in The Blood Spilt, notably the police officers Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke, Rebecka’s colleague Maria Taube and her flinty, socially-awkward supervisor Måns Wenngren. The perspective can jump quite suddenly, from one sentence to the next, between these characters or a good many others introduced in this novel. Larsson’s characters are clearly drawn, admirably varied, and richly imagined, but I do wish she didn’t head-hop to quite the extent that she does, because it can at times get disorienting. (There are several apparently-missed scene breaks in the final few chapters that certainly don’t help in this regard.) If you can cope with the perspective-shuffling, there’s a lot to like in Larsson’s clean, smooth, deep prose which sets the scenes exquisitely while layering on the mystery and the tension. I will confess to substantial misgivings, based on the book’s back-cover blurb, that Larsson was emulating too closely the storyline of The Savage Altar—both books are, after all, about the savage slaying of a Kiruna-area priest, an event in which Martinsson somehow becomes entangled from the initial remove of Stockholm, hundreds of kilometres away—and yet, while there is undeniably a loose commonality of theme, the stories are quite distinct in detail, in mood, and in structure. The Blood Spilt is, I would say, a more complex story than its predecessor: it lacks the full-on desperation of the last third of The Savage Altar, but it’s quite its match for barbarity, and some of the atrocity revealed is only tenuously foreshadowed (if that); as a result, it’s all the more confronting. (Larsson does not treat her characters with kid gloves.)

It’s probably inappropriate to describe a book which is (in parts) this bleak as a ‘triumph’, but it’s certainly a tour de force. The emotional depth and the empathy on display here, even in the most grim of contexts, is what makes Larsson’s writing work.

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Book review(s): two Swedish murder mysteries

29 05 2016

Swedish crime is a bit of a departure for me. (It’s a bit of a departure, too, of course, for the murder victims, but that’s by-the-by.) But my tastes in SF are veering towards SF / mystery; thus it seems appropriate to be familiarising myself more with straight mystery, so this is some of what I’ve been reading recently. There’s not really anything connecting these two novels, other than that they’re both by Swedish crime writers. And that the pivotal murder in each book is one in which the victim is not merely killed, but mutilated—in a location within which he had every reason to expect himself safe—by, it’s suspected, a female family member (in one case his wife, in the other his sister, who reacts to arrest with, it seems, some indications of mental instability, and whose only hope of being proven innocent lies with the efforts of a tireless woman playing amateur detective on her behalf. (A somewhat-sympathetic policewoman, looking to defy or outmanoeuvre her male superior officers, also features strongly in each book.) Oh, and both books also manage to name-check the Moomins, something to which I’m somewhat sensitised at the moment. (I’ve no idea whether casual Moomin references are de rigeur in Swedish crime novels; I suppose the two waiting on my to-be-read pile may shed some light on that.) So yes, there are some commonalities between the two stories, which I’ve sought to highlight above. But they are, for all that, very different stories: different crimes, different characters, different story arcs, different writing styles. Let’s get stuck in.

lifetime

Liza Marklund’s Lifetime (Livstid, 2007, translated by Neil Smith) has newly-separated Stockholm journalist Annika Bengtzon as its protagonist. This is Bengtzon’s seventh outing, so she obviously has form as an investigator; but as the book opens, she has more pressing concerns than the latest gruesome murder, because somebody has just burnt her house down and, without money, documentation, or a change of clothes, she must find shelter for herself and her two young children. The murder victim is a noted police officer, David Lindholm, shot through the head and then the crotch. First on the scene is a policewoman, Nina Hoffmann, an acquaintance, through work, of Bengtzon, and a close friend of David’s wife Julia (also a police officer) who was present at the time of the murder and whose service weapon, found at the scene, is established as the murder weapon. There’s no evidence that anyone other than David and Julia was in the apartment, and Julia’s guilt (of not only her husband’s murder, but also that of their missing four-year-old son Alexander) seems inescapable. But something doesn’t entirely add up, and first Hoffmann and later Bengtzon take up the investigation.

This is a carefully-plotted, detailed, well-researched murder mystery, and I found the latter stages particularly compulsive—which, I guess, is what you want in a crime story. It took its time to gain traction, and it didn’t shy from sociological observation. The central figures of Bengtzon and Hoffmann were very well realised, as was that of Thomas, Annika’s estranged husband, who also plays a significant role. And the settings seemed accurate: Liza Marklund is herself a journalist, and she’s obviously researched Swedish jurisprudence and custodial policies in some depth: there is, in places, a little too much background detail provided, and it sometimes ‘told’ where I felt it should ‘show’. But the murder makes sense, and second-guessing it is unlikely to avail the reader. I enjoyed reading it.

TheSavageAltar

Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (Solstorm, 2003, translated by Marlaine Delargy) is headed up by busy Stockholm tax lawyer Rebecka Martinsson. (‘Tax lawyer’ is also Larsson’s former profession. Write what you know, as they say.) But she’s called to her childhood home of Kiruna, the Swedish mining town somewhat north of the Arctic Circle, by her former flatmate Sanna Strandgård, whose brother Viktor, a charismatic new-age preacher whose evangelical schtick revolves around a near-death experience of a few years earlier, has been found, by Sanna and her two children, butchered in the church within which he had been such an emblematic figure. A murder weapon is found by the police in Sanna’s apartment, along with Viktor’s treasured bible. It appears an open-and-shut case, and the police—represented most vividly by the heavily-pregnant Anna-Maria Mella, who keeps finding excuses not to confine herself to desk work—see little reason to believe Sanna’s protestations of innocence. Rebecka is Sanna’s only hope; and Rebecka is, as she takes pains to explain, merely a tax lawyer, with no experience in criminal investigation outside of spreadsheets and tax tables. Nor does she have any experience with children, and with their mother Sanna arrested Rebecka finds herself with responsibility for eleven-year-old Sara, four-year old Lova, and the dog Virku. So when the threats start …

This is a beautifully-written book, its prose is clean and clear, its descriptive passages reminiscent of Alice Munro, its characterisation as sharp as Raymond Chandler’s. It’s tight, tense, unhurried, deftly paced, and appropriately complex. I found it utterly convincing, and remarkably gripping as events cascade towards the climax. It’s an exceptional first novel.

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Both of these books fall in a series. Marklund has, to date, produced eleven volumes featuring Annika Bengtzon (many of which have also been made into films), and has also collaborated with James Paterson, on The Postcard Killers (a collaboration which made Marklund the second Swedish author to top the New York Times bestseller list). And there are now six books in Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson sequence, although it appears to be in hiatus: for the past three years, Larsson has been collaborating with author Ingela Korsell and illustrator Henrik Jonsson on the PAX series of Nordic-mythology-based YA urban fantasy graphic novels which, although they have been translated widely across Europe, do not appear to exist yet in English-language editions.