Book review: A Summer with Kim Novak, by Håkan Nesser

2 09 2017

Håkan Nesser is a Swedish crime author best known for his Inspector Van Veeteren series of murder mysteries, set in the fictitious Northern European city of Maardam. His work has won the Best Swedish Crime Novel award three times; I’ve previously reviewed his Glass Key award-winning novel Hour of the Wolf here.


A Summer with Kim Novak (Kim Novak badade aldrig i Genesarets sjö, 1998, translated by Saskia Vogel) is narrated by fourteen-year-old Erik Wassman, an introspective boy whose mother is dying of cancer. Erik is sent, for the 1962 summer holidays, to stay with his older brother Henry, a reporter with the local newspaper, at a lakeside summer cottage owned by his mother’s family. Erik’s accompanied by a schoolfriend, Edmund. The ‘Kim Novak’ lookalike of the title is one Ewa Kaludis, a relief teacher at Erik’s and Edmund’s school and the fiancée of hot-tempered handball star Bertil Albertsson (‘Super-Berra’). When ladies’ man Henry gets involved with Ewa, it’s plain even to Erik that all is not going to end well …

This coming-of-age tale, reminiscent in some respects of Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s The Scarecrow, is rather different to Nesser’s other work, but nonetheless showcases his ability with slowly-unfolding menace and dashes of situational humour (provided largely by the viewpoint of Erik, who is such a sponge for adult platitudes that in his fourteen years he has accrued one for every occasion). The crime at the book’s core is carefully framed, the investigation is reported in a secondhand (and not highly detailed) fashion by Erik, who’s more concerned with extracting as much enjoyment as possible from the summer, by way of excursions with Edmund (whether by bike or rowboat), reading, and fantasising about girls—the glamorous and worldly Ewa foremost among the latter.

This is an unassuming but very enjoyable piece of Swedish crime fiction. It’s slow to start, but digs very successfully into the not-always-edifying mind of a fourteen year old and manages, despite its protagonist’s limitations, to seem at times profound.


Book review: Still Waters, by Viveca Sten

23 08 2017

Viveca Sten is a Swedish lawyer and crime fiction novelist best known for her ‘Sandhamn Murders’ series, featuring police officer Thomas Andreasson and his friend financial lawyer Nora Linde, set on and around Sandhamn, an island in the Stockholm archipelago with a winter population of around a hundred and a summer population of two or three thousand. The ‘Sandhamn Murders’ series currently stands at eight books, of which the first four have seen English translation.


Still Waters (I de lugnaste vatten, 2008, translated by Marlaine Delargy) opens with the drowning of the reclusive Krister Berggren, in a manner which quite clearly indicates foul play; yet when his body is recovered from the waters off Sandhamn a few months later, there’s nothing about the corpse to suggest that the death was anything but accidental. Nonetheless, the police open an investigation to attempt to determine the circumstances of Berggren’s death. When, a few days later, Krister’s next-of-kin, cousin Kiki Berggren, is also found dead, with signs of assault, in a Sandhamn bed-and-breakfast, it becomes obvious that there’s more to the drowning than has previously surfaced. But with the only people who could shed significant light on the deaths dead, how are Thomas Andreasson and his colleagues to find the killer?

Still Waters is somewhat reminiscent of the work of fellow Swedish crime novelist Camilla Läckberg, whose ‘Fjällbacka’ series similarly features a sequence of murders and other crimes in a picturesque location (the fishing and tourism village Fjällbacka) popular as a summer holiday destination. Also in keeping with Läckberg’s series, a substantial focus of the story arc is the juxtaposition of crime and romance: in Läckberg’s books, her protagonists (detective Patrik Hedström and writer Erica Falck) become an item quite early on, while the private lives of Sten’s principal protagonists (Andreasson and Linde) do not quite intersect romantically (at this point, at least) but are certainly explored in substantial detail. This is not to say, though, that Sten’s work is specifically derivative: while it fits quite comfortably into the trope of Swedish crime fiction (other echoes are the writers Mari Jungstedt and Helene Tursten, whose novels similarly blend murder and domesticity), its setting and characterisation are both sufficiently individualistic that Still Waters stands on its own right, and reveals itself as an accomplished debut with a well-researched plot and a comfortable depth of expert knowledge, with interesting local colour added for good measure. I’m inclined to think the plot in this novel could be a little too twisty for its own good, but it’s written well enough that this can be overlooked, and it has enough grit and gruesomeness to avoid falling into a ‘cosy crime’ categorisation. It will be interesting to see how the series develops.

Book review: The White City, by Karolina Ramqvist

13 08 2017

Karolina Ramqvist is a Swedish journalist, magazine editor, and author who has won several literary awards for her fiction and essays. Only a small fraction of her work has yet appeared in English translation.


At the start of The White City (Den vit staden, 2015, translated by Saskia Vogel), Karin and her infant daughter Dream are still living in the luxurious two-storey home she had, until recently, shared with the now-departed John. But the dwelling’s services have been cut, over the past few months of autumn and winter, for non-payment of arrears: there’s no phone, no heating, no food in the refrigerator. John, it seems, didn’t come by the house (or by anything much else of their possessions) entirely legally, and Karin has no independent means of supporting herself or her daughter. So when the functionaries of the Swedish Economic Crime Authority make it plain—one final time—to Karin that they’re about to seize all of those possessions, it forces her to break out of the torpor she’s been sheltering within over the preceding weeks.

The opening sections of The White City are uncomfortable reading, lacking in literal or metaphorical warmth, sharing the severe Scandinavian sensibility of an early Ingmar Bergman film, or of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Ranqvist’s writing is clinical, unflinching: Karin may well be spending her days in a miasma of depression, denial, and desperation, but we’re forced to watch and to empathise with her (and with Dream, utterly at the mercy of her mother’s lapses in attention). Karin is, however, a survivor, and she sets about seeking out John’s former colleagues, to establish whether there’s any compassion among thieves, any way to take control of her circumstances. The reception she gets isn’t what she hopes for.

The White City is a carefully-scripted piece of minimalist menace, akin in tone to Agnes Ravatn’s exquisite The Bird Tribunal—though among many points of divergence, Ravatn’s novel is deeply rural, almost pastoral, where Ramqvist’s is quintessentially suburban. Although both books can, in some measure, be viewed as crime novels, their strong understatement, painstaking attention to detail, emphasis on character and viewpoint, and carefully-implied near-constant tension (in The Bird Tribunal, via the nagging doubt of whether her housekeeper protagonist can truly trust her host and employer; in The White City, via the simple but knife-edged concern over whether Karin can keep her infant daughter from harm while her own world crumbles around her) imbues them with a definite literary feel.

This is a quiet book, subtle, compact, but quite mesmerising.

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.


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.


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: 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.


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.

Book review: The Gingerbread House, by Carin Gerhardsen

20 07 2017

Carin Gerhardsen is a Swedish crime novelist and former mathematician and IT consultant, best known for her ‘Hammarby series’ of murder mysteries set in the Stockholm suburb of that name and featuring Detective Chief Inspector Conny Sjöberg. The series now stands at eight books in the original Swedish (and, I think, in German translation); currently only the first three have been translated into English.


The Gingerbread House (Pepparkakshuset, 2008, translated by Paul Norlen) marks the first instalment in the Hammarby series. It opens with a carefully-etched depiction of childhood cruelty and segues into a brutal murder which, from the outset, is plainly retributive. Sjöberg and his team begin the investigation with no connection apparent between the victim and the site of the assault, and no apparent motive for the slaying of someone undemonstrably successful and lacking in known enemies. Over the next fortnight, three more deadly attacks occur, by various methods and scattered around central Sweden, but they are not immediately connected by the police to the initial slaying of Hans Vannerberg. (That connection is made, for the reader, by the inclusion of the killer’s diary which establishes the common motive for the assaults.)

I enjoyed the characterisation in The Gingerbread House. The principal viewpoint characters employed are senior officer Sjöberg, junior team member Petra Westman, and the murderer. Conny Sjöberg would appear to be a rarity in Scandinavian crime fiction—a happily married police officer—but there’s enough complexity to his character to ensure his is an interesting perspective, as too is Westman’s. The murderer’s diary entries, while providing an undeniably hard edge to what could otherwise be a tidy police procedural, actually have the effect of slowing the story somewhat, and I felt while reading that this material could either have been abridged or excised completely—we alreday know, from the outset, why the murders are occurring. Having finished the book, I think I see the reason for their inclusion.

Gerhardsen’s writing is evocative and engaging, with considerable emphasis placed on portraying the murderer as a tragic figure whose motivation is understandable, almost inescapable. In tone, the book has certain similarities to the work of Norwegian crime novelist Karin Fossum—DCI Sjöberg could well be Fossum’s Konrad Sejer with a happier homelife—and also Karin Alvtegen, for whom the psychology of the perpetrator is a primary focus. There is, in fact, an intriguing connection between The Gingerbread House (2008) and Alvtegen’s Shadow (2007), with both books relaying an identical anecdote involving the dilemma faced by a woman seeking to gain boat passage across a crocodile-infested river to visit her boyfriend. In each case, the anecdote, relayed at a social gathering, is presented as an ethics test designed to provide an insight into the psychological makeup of principal characters. (A bit of Google-based research will show that the anecdote in question is fairly widely known in social-science circles as ‘The Alligator River Story’, which asks the participant to rate the behaviour of the five characters in the story from best to worst.) I suspect the inclusion of the anecdote in both books is more an example of convergent evolution than of anything more sinister—given the evident interest of both Gerhardsen and Alvtegen in the detailed exploration of criminal psychology and the backstory to criminality, it’s understandable that the same widely-known ethics exercise might find its way into two different stories, but it does give the reader momentary pause on encountering it in a second book.

This is, overall, a promising first instalment to what would seem to be an interesting series, and one of which I hope we see more in English translation than merely the three books currently available.