Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Johan Theorin, Publisher, Setting, Sweden, Transworld Digital

‘Echoes from the Dead’ by Johan Theorin


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.

16 thoughts on “‘Echoes from the Dead’ by Johan Theorin”

  1. Somewhere this week I’ve read an article declaring that the Scandinavian Crime Novel is dead. Which probably means either that the writer could think of nothing else to say and thought it would make a good headline, or that they were involved in the publishing of the Italian crime novels they were saying were set now to take over. What does it matter as long as there is a good story to tell. I’ll look out for Theorin, who is a completely new name to me.


  2. Very nice review. I met Johan Theorin last year, he talked about his books and was very intersting. I read this book later and I agree with you : it is an excellent writer and not only a marketing product.


  3. It is a pity that nowadays any book by a Scandinavian author with a crime in it is labelled with Stieg Larsson’s name in some way. I’d say Johan Theorin is a very different type of author, much more introspective and interested in psychology and character more than politics and overheated thrills. He’s very well served by his translator, Marlaine Delargy, in addition.
    I think this novel is one of the best crime novels I’ve read, the characters of Julia and Gerlof lift it out of the genre straitjacket, I think. I was less enamoured of the historical back story of the “corpse”.
    I too met the author a couple of times at book events and he’s very interesting and serious in talking about his books, which are based on his memories of his grandfather and other people he knows or knew on Oland. In the PB edition of this book there are some lovely old photos that the author has included.
    I liked the next novel in the quartet, The Darkest Room, too.


  4. I don’t think there’s any fear of the Scandinavian crime novel being dead just yet, do you? From where I stand its popularity looks pretty assured. At some point it might tail off but it’s not going to go away completely. I suspect Italian crime novels will be the next “big thing”…


  5. Good to know that The Darkest Room keeps up the high standard. I suspect I will read it at some point.
    Actually, I should thank you for introducing me to this author, Maxine, because I’m pretty sure it was your blog that made me aware of his existence. I know I always look for his novels in Waterstone’s but I’ve never once come across him on the shelf; hence I bought this edition in Kindle format. It cost under £4 and was delivered to me here in Oz in a matter of seconds without me leaving the comfort of my deck chair. How brilliant is that?


  6. Thank-you, pburt. In some ways both books are very similar: they are about missing people and old crimes from the past. But if I had to choose which book I preferred best, I’d go for Hypothermia, but that’s probably because I have a soft spot for Erlunder, the main character.


  7. Scandinavians have written crime fiction at least since 1902, and I think they´ll go on whether English readers read them or not ;D
    But the Stieg Larsson sticker is exceptionally stupid when they apply it to writers who are much better than Larsson, e.g. technically.
    Personally I had a funny example this summer when I wrote a short flash story and one of my friends compared it to Stieg Larsson. Then another reader protested ´because my story wasn´t realistic enough´. Well, what´s the problem???? So perhaps people should be more precise before they make these comparisons.


  8. I’ve been eagerly awaiting your review Kim, just to see what you thought of this book. I read it way back in 2008 when it was first published in this country. Prior to this, I had hardly read any crime fiction at all, let alone any Scandinavian novels; I would say that this one book is responsible for my love of Scandinavian fiction. If you’d like to read The Darkest Room, I’d be happy to send my copy to you.


  9. Good point about history of Scandinavian crime fiction!
    I think for the marketing people Stieg Larsson is like the new Dan Brown. After the Davinci Code became a best-seller anything that resembled a weird kind of mystery was suddenly billed as “the new Dan Brown”. Such a turn off…


  10. Yes, the Kindle certainly is great in that regard! I have to have a rule to myself that I will only download one book at a time (or, maybe, two 😉 ) otherwise the temptation to accumulate yet another vast “not yet read” pile would be overwhelming.


  11. I’ve just reserve this book after reading your review! I’ve never been a crime fiction fan, except for the Agatha Christies, but I have been getting into Scandinavian crime. It’s probably because that they’ve had such a clean cut image for so long. At the moment, I’m reading Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End which is quite good so far.


  12. Hi Mae, well, as you can probably tell I’m going through a crime fiction phase at the moment. I find it relatively easy reading when I’m in a relaxed frame of mind. I’ve not heard of “Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End” so I had to look it up on Amazon; it sounds very good. I’ll keep my eye out for your review.


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