Fiction – Kindle edition; Transworld Digital; 480 pages; 2009. Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy.
With so many publishers jumping on the Stieg Larsson bandwagon, it’s hard to know which Scandinavian crime thrillers are worth reading and which ones are just cashing in on the phenomenon. Despite the promotional sticker on the cover of Johan Theorin‘s debut novel, Echoes from the Dead, I can attest that this book falls into the former rather than the latter category.
The story is set on the atmospheric Swedish island of Öland during the off-season. All the tourists have gone home and the seaside villages are deserted and empty. The alvar — “a labyrinth of long stone walls, boulders, bushes and endless grassy plains” — which covers large parts of Öland, lies still and silent.
The alvar is like a sea. Yes. Anything at all could happen out there, and no one would be any the wiser.
Twenty years earlier a little boy, Jens, disappeared in thick fog on the alvar. His body has never been recovered. His mother, Julia, a nurse on the mainland, has never got over her grief; she’s convinced her boy is still alive and is waiting for the phone call that says he’s been found.
When her elderly father Gerlof (pronounced Yairloff) receives a child’s sandal in the post Julia’s belief that Jens is still alive gains further weight. If the shoe is one of Jens, who sent it — and why?
Together Julia and Gerloff, a retired sea-captain living in sheltered accommodation, embark on their own private investigation as they piece together clues from the past.
Their story is intercut with the story of the main suspect, local bad boy Nils Kant, who was suspected of murdering his younger brother on the island in 1936 and was rumoured to have shot two German soldiers and run off to South America with their “spoils of war” several years later.
What makes Echoes from the Dead such a great read is Theorin’s terrific plot, which goes off in unexpected directions without sacrificing plausibility.
The pacing is carefully controlled by the interleaving of two separate narrative threads, so that the significance of certain clues discovered in one storyline help inform the second, and vice-versa. All of this builds into a superb climax, one that ties up loose ends and has you feeling genuinely moved by all that has happened before.
But it’s the characterisation that elevates Echoes from the Dead above the average whodunit. Julia is sympathetically drawn: she’s a deeply troubled woman, prone to drinking too much and unable to stand up to her bullying older sister, but emerges from this story much stronger despite the grief. And Gerloff is a standout: an intelligent, resourceful and kind man, who never lets age or infirmity put him off his mission to find out what really happened to his beloved grandson all those years ago. And how refreshing it is to have a lead character in a crime novel who isn’t a journalist or a policeman!
Echoes from the Dead was voted Best First Mystery Novel by the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers in 2007 and won the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger in 2009.