Book review: The Black Path, by Åsa Larsson

1 01 2018

Åsa Larsson is a Swedish crime fiction writer and former tax lawyer. She has twice won the Best Swedish Crime Novel Award and has written approximately a dozen books; she’s best known for her five ‘Rebecka Martinsson’ crime novels, the first two of which, The Savage Altar and The Blood Spilt, I’ve reviewed previously.

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The Black Path (Svart stig, 2006, translated by either (!) Marlaine Delargy (title page) or Laurie Thompson (back cover)) opens with the discovery of a woman’s frozen body in an ice-fishing hut on Torneträsk. The woman is soon identified as Inna Wattrang, a financier for the strongly-performing Kallis Mining concern; she’s been electrocuted and stabbed through the heart. Kiruna police detective Anna-Maria Mella is put in charge of the investigation, and she enlists the help of Rebecka Martinsson (now in self-imposed exile from her position as a Stockholm tax lawyer, following the traumatic events of the preceding two books) to sift through the financial details of Wattrang’s recent past in the hope of finding a motive for her killing. It’s less a Martinsson book than a Mella procedural, but it arguably focusses most closely on the life stories of Inna and of those who, one way or another, are connected to her death.

Larsson works with a lot of viewpoint characters, chops unpredictably between backstory told in present tense (and sometimes first person) and unfolding action told in past tense: this, it has to be said, has every potential to go catastrophically wrong. And yet the writing is superb. Larsson is fully in command of the story, which is gripping from the outset: her ability to drill into the innermost thoughts and motivations of an extremely wide range of characters is astonishingly good, and the ease with which the narrative flicks from introspection to graphic and gritty activity is decidedly disconcerting. It helps, too, that The Black Path‘s scenario is divergent from the previous two books: a third successive novel exploring gruesome murder among the clerics of Northern Sweden would, I think, have typecast the series rather too tightly.

The thing I find most appealing about Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson novels is that they function both as full-blown crime novels and as serious literature which happens to be peppered with unflinching brutality. (It’s a trick reminiscent in some ways of Iain Banks’ work, though their writing styles are very different.) The least appealing thing is the notion that, three books in, I now only have two more Åsa Larsson novels to go (in English translation, at least). If you’re looking for a gateway into Scandinavian crime fiction, this is one of the best.

 

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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.

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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.