Book review: Babylon, by Camilla Ceder

13 03 2017

Camilla Ceder is a Swedish social worker and writer, based in Göteborg, who has to date written two crime novels and, more recently, several children’s books.

Babylon

Babylon (Babylon, 2010, translated by Marlaine Delargy) is Ceder’s second crime novel; like the first, Frozen Moment, it’s set in and around Ceder’s home turf of Göteborg and is headed up by Inspector Christian Tell.

Rebecca Nykvist is a care-home worker with longstanding anger issues directed against the men in her life. Her current partner, Henrik Samuelsson, is an archaeology student who is having an affair with his tutor, Ann-Marie Karpov. So when Henrik and Ann-Marie are summarily executed late one night, by a visitor to Ann-Marie’s apartment, it’s only natural that Rebecca, who has just that night learnt of Henrik’s duplicity, should emerge as a prime suspect for the double murder, particularly when it’s established that she had visited the apartment on the night in question. But Rebecca swears her innocence, and when her own home is systematically ransacked by burglars apparently seeking items other than the conventional targets of jewellery and high-end gadgetry, it begins to appear that the murders may not have been motivated by simple jealousy …

This is an intriguing novel with sophisticated and detailed characterisation: there’s quite a bit of head-hopping, but Ceder gives enough individuality to each of the players that the frequent changes of perspective don’t usually become disorienting, and the various protagonists grapple with realistic human problems as well as the complexities and trials of the ongoing investigation. (The title Babylon can satisfactorily be interpreted on at least two levels, the literal location and the metaphorical tower of miscommunication, both of which are contextually appropriate.) There’s so much character development that, at times, it threatens to overwhelm the novel’s crime core, particularly in the sequences that deal with Tell’s romantic interest Seja Lundberg, a journalist whose connection to the investigation is incidental at most: I suppose this plays into the reputation that Scandinavian crime fiction has for social commentary, but it would seem churlish to expect a writer trained in social work and psychotherapy to eschew such explorations into the human psyche. I would also argue that the quality of Ceder’s writing is a saving grace and further argue that, while the novel is in places a little sedate in its pacing, it remains interesting. (And the pace does pick up quite markedly towards the end.) It helps, too, that the story which emerges is one with considerable currency—indeed, its relevance has arguably been increased by events which have occurred on the geopolitical scene within the seven years since the book was first published.

I enjoyed this one quite a bit, and I’ll be watching with interest to see whether Ceder returns to crime fiction; I hope she does.

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