Book review: The Killer’s Art, by Mari Jungstedt

19 03 2018

Mari Jungstedt is a Swedish journalist and crime fiction author, best known for her series of Gotland-based police procedurals featuring Inspector Anton Knutas (with most titles in the series available in English translation). I’ve previously reviewed the first three books in the series.


(Before the review proper, I should just reassure readers that the book’s title is not spoilerish: there is no character called Art in this volume.)

The Killer’s Art (Den döende dandyn, 2006, translated by Tiina Nunnally) opens with the early-morning discovery of a naked corpse, which has been hanged from a tall medieval gate in the city walls of Visby. It’s quickly established that (a) the deceased is Egon Wallin, well-known (and apparently universally liked) local art dealer and gallery owner, and (b) Wallin didn’t hang himself. So who did? Inspector Knutas and his team commence an investigation in which no motive suggests itself as plausible, though as they dig deeper into Wallin’s personal and professional lives, several secrets and deceptions are revealed …

As always in Jungstedt’s work, the worldbuilding is very good, with the setting of Gotland ably described alongside the blend of genuine and invented art history that backdrops the novel. The characterisation, also, is effective: one of the strengths of the series is its nuanced depiction of the developing professional relationship between Knutas and his longtime colleague Karin Jacobsson, as well as the rather fraught personal relationship between recurring characters Emma Wingarve and TV reporter Johan Berg. (My sole grievance with regard to characterisation is in the portrayal of regular supporting character Inspector Martin Kihlgård, who’s described as being so food-obsessed that he’s eating something in every scene he appears in: while I appreciate that caricaturish ‘tells’ can provide a shorthand for depicting a less-complex character, it nonetheless seems somewhat cheap and unconvincing in an otherwise well-constructed story.) I think, though, that the danger of a series like this—which now, as I understand it, runs to eleven books—is that ultimately it can strain credulity that an island (a large one, admittedly) with a population of slightly less than sixty thousand can play host to such a sequence of complicated and rather outlandish violent crime sprees. While each book is impressive in isolation—Jungstedt’s writing may not quite have the visceral clarity of, say, Åsa Larsson’s, nor the psychological brutality of Karin Alvtegen’s, but she writes well and excels at the depiction of complicated interpersonal relationships—I do find myself wondering if, perhaps, the whole isn’t somewhat less than the sum of its parts. But at this stage there are another seven books to go before I reach that point, so it’s maybe premature to speculate just yet.


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 (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 (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.

Book review(s): two Swedish crime novels

19 09 2016

Two more Swedish crime books. The common ground in these stories is their setting, on the large islands (Öland, connected to the mainland by a six-kilometre bridge, and Gotland, whose eastern shore is almost as close to Latvia as it is to the Swedish mainland) off Sweden’s south-east coast. These are, nonetheless, contrasting stories, both in theme and tone: one is concerned with the desperate hunt to identify and detain a mysterious serial killer, in the build-up to the height of the summer tourist season; the other tangles with the ghosts of the past, while a gang of thieves and vandals lay waste to the holiday homes of wealthy mainlanders as autumn segues into a bitter winter.

Mari Jungstedt is a journalist and writer who has written around a dozen crime novels, including a series featuring the detectives Anders Knutas and Karin Jacobsson and the TV reporter Johan Berg. Her work has been televised on Swedish and German TV. Unseen (Den du inte ser, 2003, translated by Tiina Nunnally) is her first novel, and the first in the Knutas / Jacobsson / Berg series.


Following a disastrous party which terminates in a drunken altercation between her partner and her old schoolfriend, Helena Hillerström takes the dog for an early-morning walk along the west Gotland beach near the cabin she shares with Per Berglund. But neither Helena nor the dog gets to return to the cabin: they are ambushed and slain by an axe-wielding killer on the deserted beach. Suspicion initally falls on her boyfriend Per, and on Kristian, the other participant in the party’s fight, who has already left the country when the police begin their investigation. But a second murder, of Frida Lindh, a hairdresser recently arrived from Stockholm, occurs late at night a week later, while Per is still in custody and Kristian is in Copenhagen. Though the means of death are shockingly similar, there seems nothing which connects Helena and Frida other than their age and the coincidence that both have moved from Stockholm to Gotland within the past year. Knutas and Jacobsson must try to find the killer before any more violent deaths can occur.

Unseen is wonderfully written, in clear compelling prose, with a taut, multiply-stranded plot, a profusion of tantalising items of evidence, and a multiplicity of character viewpoints that lifts it out of the ‘police procedural’ category. Jungstedt’s background in TV journalism shows, too, in the strand exploring Berg’s efforts to elucidate information on the crimes that the police are not yet ready to divulge. It’s a very well-crafted piece of fiction, and serves as an excellent introduction to what would seem to be a highly promising murder mystery series. The cover blurb compares Jungstedt to Henning Mankell; I feel a more apt comparison would be the work of Åsa Larsson, whose The Savage Altar (another highly polished debut) I reviewed some months ago. There’s also some common ground with Camilla Läckberg’s Fjällbacka series, with Jungstedt’s incisive handling of a romantic sub-plot that, as it happens, heightens rather than distracts from the unfolding tension.

Johan Theorin, another journalist / novelist, is the author of several books, including the ‘Öland Quartet’, a set of four loosely-connected  books which blend crime with a hint of the supernatural. The Darkest Room (Nattfåk, 2008, translated by Marlaine Delargy) is the second in the Quartet, and has won Swedish and international crime writing awards.


Joakim and Katrine Westin and their two young children have recently moved from Stockholm to the ‘manor house’, a renovators’ dream at Eel Point on eastern Öland. The house is steeped in history and atmosphere, and they have no regrets at having left the big city far behind them. But tragedy strikes when Joakim is away picking up the last of their belongings from their old Stockholm apartment, and he drives back to the island having learnt that Livia, his young daughter, has drowned in mysterious circumstances. He has heard this terrible news from a young policewoman, Tilda Davidsson, who has begun to investigate a series of increasingly audacious and violent break-ins on the island. There is nothing connecting the Westins to these break-ins, until the thieves elect to turn their attention to Eel Point. But it begins to appear that the living may not be the only unwanted guests about to descend upon the manor house …

The Darkest Room is a seriously spooky book, which I’d recommend not be read while you’re the only one in the house, particularly if you happen to live near a derelict lighthouse. (The closest parallel among other Scandicrime books I’ve read would probably be Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea, which is also disconcertingly atmospheric.) I’m not normally a fan of ‘ghost stories’, and The Darkest Room certainly has the flavour of phantoms about it, but it’s also a subtle and well-framed story that takes its time to reveal its true nature, underpinned by an exceptionally well-concealed crime. Like Unseen, it employs a multiplicity of character viewpoints: this, and the lack of an obvious overarching criminal act, makes the story slow to become immersive, but it does reward the reader’s patience. The book’s third act is painfully suspenseful: Theorin uses his multiple-viewpoint approach here to maximum effect, as the story’s various players converge on Eel Point while an approaching blizzard threatens mayhem of its own.

Theorin also does a very good job of exploring his setting, including a treatment of the forces of nature that vividly highlights the power and the danger associated with the midwinter storms; arguably, the island is as much a character within the book as its human participants. Of those humans, the reactions of the Westin family to their tragedy are detailed, idiosyncratic, and plausible, while Tilda Davidsson is an intriguing and realistically flawed detective figure (though I’m not sure if she features in the other books of the Quartet).

It’s interesting to note that, while Unseen has the more overtly vicious sequence of crimes, The Darkest Room has the more distinctly sinister narrative. I enjoyed Jungstedt’s writing from the outset; Theorin’s needed to win me over. Ultimately, though, they both work well.