Book review: October Is The Coldest Month, by Christoffer Carlsson

12 08 2017

Christoffer Carlsson is an award-winning Swedish criminologist and crime fiction writer, best known as the creator of the ‘Leo Junker’ series of novels. I’ve recently reviewed the first of that series, The Invisible Man From Salem, here.

OctoberIsTheColdestMonth

October Is the Coldest Month (Oktober Är Den Kallaste Månaden, 2016, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles) is Carlsson’s first foray into young adult fiction, but it is in several ways a natural extrapolation: much of the content of The Invisible Man From Salem dealt with an exploration of the pivotal events in Junker’s adolescence, and conveyed a vivid familiarity with the range and shape of the teenage experience. That same familiarity is on display in October.

School student Vega Gillberg, 16, is home alone when her world is turned upside down by a knock at the door. It’s a police officer, Viktor Franzén, seeking information on the whereabouts of Vega’s older brother Jakob in connection with the disappearance of local man Lars Hellman. Actually, it’s not this event that inverts Vega’s life, it’s something that happened two or three nights earlier, but she daren’t tell the police about that …

October is a smart, snappy, fast-moving tale that places the reader very effectively in Vega’s inquisitive shoes, and that’s steeped in a kind of rural gothic menace that could be almost Appalacian rather than the southern Swedish hinterlands: it’s a landscape of backroads, bogs, and deep forests. The book drips with mood, menace, and the oppressive chill of late autumn. The characters—Vega, Jakob, their mother, one-armed Uncle Dan, Jakob’s friend Malte, Vega’s classmate Tom, his mother Diana—are all quickly sculpted and clearly expressed; everyone in this short novel has an implied backstory and a credibly guilty secret of their own, a plausible reason why they might be resistant to providing honest answers to Vega’s careful questions about just what has been going on. The truth that is eventually revealed is messy, unsettling, and well handled.

Carlsson has quite rapidly proven himself to be an interesting voice in the quite crowded genre of Swedish crime fiction; October Is The Cruellest Month demonstrates that he’s equally at home with YA.

 

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Book review: The Invisible Man from Salem, by Christoffer Carlsson

5 08 2017

Christoffer Carlsson is a Swedish lecturer in criminology who in 2012 was awarded the International European Society of Criminology’s Young Criminologist Award. He’s also a writer of crime fiction with six novels to date, one of which (the one under review here) was awarded Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year, as well as shortlisted for the Glass Key Award; his first YA novel has been awarded Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year for Young Readers. His best-known work to date is the Leo Junker series, which now stands at three novels.

TheInvisibleManFromSalem

The Invisible Man from Salem (Den Osynlige Mannen från Salem, 2013, translated by Michael Gallagher) opens with the Stockholm police called, late one night, to a women’s refuge within an apartment building, where a woman suspected of prostitution and petty drug dealing has been killed in her sleep by a gunshot to the head. The apartment block is home to Leo Junker, a member of the police’s Internal Affairs department, currently suspended (though he prefers the term ‘on leave’) following his involvement in a botched police raid on an arms shipment. Concerned at an apparent hit-style killing in his own building, Leo starts his own investigation into the death. But you know that saying about curiosity, cats, and the sudden onset of death? Leo manages to fit himself squarely in the frame for the murder …

The book’s title is a reference not to the Massachusetts town, nor to the Oregon state capital, but to the municipality in Sweden which functions largely as a dormitory suburb of Stockholm and from which Junker hails. The text alternates between the present-day investigation and the formative events in Leo’s adolescence, a decade and a half ago. This detailed backstory at first appears somewhat gratuitous, until it becomes apparent that it’s not. There’s a reason why Leo fits so well as the crime’s perpetrator.

There’s very little to cavil about with this book. The writing has a nice intensity about it, the book’s tone of gritty paranoia and slow-burning injustice serves it better than would any play to sensationalism, and Leo is an interesting, sympathetic, and seriously-flawed viewpoint character. Those in his circle of friends, former friends, and colleagues are also conveyed as complex and relatable characters, many of whom guard their own secrets. It’s clear, too, that Carlsson is well-versed in the particularities of Swedish jurisprudence and policing (as could be expected, given his day job), but this shows more through small, telling details rather than through any tendency to awkward infodumping. This holds true, too, of the book’s social commentary (most of which emerges from the Salem backstory chapters), with a credible and well-informed feel about it. None of this detail eclipses the plot: the tension builds significantly as Leo gets closer to uncovering the identity of the person behind the crime, and the climax is suitably uncomfortable to read. All up, this is an excellent introduction to Carlsson’s talents, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.