Earlier this year I read Johan Theorin‘s debut novel Echoes from the Dead and was immensely impressed with it. I was therefore keen to read the follow-up, The Darkest Room, which is the second book in Theorin’s planned quartet set on the Swedish island of Öland.
The novel is not so much about a crime, but what it is like to live in a haunted house where mysterious things happen for which there is no logical explanation. Or at least, that’s how the book feels when you begin reading it.
This is largely because the story revolves around a young family — Joakim, his wife Katrine and their two small children, Livia and Gabriel — who move from the Stockholm suburbs to renovate an old dilapidated manor house on the coast of Öland. The house, which was designed for the family that looks after twin lighthouses on little islands out at sea, was originally built from timber salvaged from a German vessel that was shipwrecked in 1846. According to Swedish folklore, it is bad luck to build a house from the spoils of a shipwreck, and there are plenty of local ghost stories attached to the house. But is it really haunted?
He [Joakim] stopped in the grass by the shore and took a long look at the buildings behind them. Isolated and private location, as it had said in the ad. Joakim still found it difficult to get used to the size of the main house; with its white gables and red wooden walls, it rose up at the top of the sloping grassy plain. Two beautiful chimneys sat on top of the tiled roof like towers, black as soot. A warm yellow light glowed in the kitchen window and on the veranda; the rest of the house was pitch black.
Odd little things do start to occur, which makes Joakim think twice. But when one member of his family dies suddenly, and in mysterious circumstances, it’s easy to see how a sensible adult might begin to believe that there are supernatural forces at work.
But to dismiss The Darkest Room as a horror story is to miss the point. There’s a lot more going on here, helped by multiple story lines in which each character has a dark secret to keep.
The first involves Henrik Jansson, a local tradesman, who goes into partnership with two small-time criminals, Tommy and Freddy Serelius. Together the three of them embark on a series of burglaries in which they steal valuables from holiday homes along the coast.
Then there’s the story of Tilda Davidsson, a new police officer, who is conducting a sordid affair with a former colleague. Tilda is also embarking on a personal research project, in which she “interviews” her great uncle in order to find out about her late grandfather.
This is the glue that melds all the story lines together, because her great uncle is Gerloff, the retired sea captain now living in a residential home for the elderly, who made his first appearance in Theorin’s earlier novel Echoes from the Dead. Gerloff is essentially an amateur sleuth, and it is his wisdom and pet theories that drives the narrative forward and helps Tilda in her official investigations. But he has a secret to keep, too, as does Joakim, who’s drug-addicted sister still haunts his conscience.
Theorin interleaves a fourth and final thread throughout these other character-driven threads, and this is about the history of the manor house. The history comes in the form of book extracts written by Mirja Rambe, Katrine’s mother, covering the period 1846 to 1962. (The Darkest Room is set somewhere in the mid 1990s, going by the age of Gerloff and the lack of mobile phone technology.) These extracts help to shape the idea that the house is haunted, because it reveals a rather sordid succession of troubles and deaths associated with those that have previously lived in it.
And there’s constant reference to Öland’s infamous blizzards, which roll in almost unannounced and claim lives. (Interestingly, the original Swedish title of the book was Nattfåk [Night Blizzard] and Theorin includes a short essay he wrote about the blizzard at the rear of the book.)
Told over the space of three months (the book is divided into sections labelled “October”, “November” and “December”), it is filled with secrets, ghost stories and Swedish folklore. The darkest room of the title turns out to be a secret room in the barn attached to the manor house, but it could also be seen as a metaphor for the secrets we all hold dear to us.
While I preferred Theorin’s debut to this one, The Darkest Room is an effortless read with plenty of momentum, and the resolution is a believable — and surprising — one.
The Darkest Room was named the Best Swedish Crime Novel in 2008 and won the CWA International Dagger in 2010.