Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting, TBR40, Vintage Digital

‘Black Seconds’ by Karin Fossum

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 352 pages; 2008. Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund.

The disappearance of a young child and the ensuing police hunt is a well-worn trope in crime fiction. I’ve read so many crime tales of this nature I no longer bother with them, but I decided to make an exception for Karin Fossum’s Black Seconds, because she’s an author I can trust to cover such a crime in a compassionate, thoughtful way.

In the past I have read many of Fossum’s books, both her standalone titles and those that are part of her Inspector Sejer series, and she has an acutely perceptive eye on what happens after the crime is committed.

Her novels usually tackle the psychological impacts on both the victim’s family and the perpetrator, highlighting how criminal acts can never be seen in isolation and how they cast long shadows on a wide circle of people and the communities they inhabit. These themes are also present in Black Seconds.

Billed as Book 6 in the Inspector Sejer series, it stands up as a good read regardless of whether you’ve read any others, so don’t let the fact it’s part of a series put you off. (It may help to know that Inspector Sejer is a fairly low-key presence in these books because while they are essentially police procedurals, Fossum’s focus is not really on the police but the people caught up in the crime.)

Missing girl

In this story, set in rural Norway, nine-year-old Ida Joner doesn’t come home after a trip on her bike to buy her favourite magazine and some chewing gum. Weeks later her distinctive bright yellow bike is found abandoned, but Ida is still missing. Her single mother, Helga, can barely hold things together, even with her married younger sister Ruth by her side offering moral support.

Ruth’s own children, 12 year-old Marion and 18-year-old Tomme, are struggling to cope with the reality that their cousin is missing, while Ruth is worried about Tomme’s growing friendship with a local drug pusher and his admission that he crashed his car on the same night of Ida’s disappearance.

When Ida’s body does eventually turn up, the post-mortem reveals an unusual death, where nothing quite seems to add up. Figuring out how she died as well as who committed the crime is a major focus for Sejer and his colleague Jacob Skarre, but for the reader it’s pretty easy to figure out what happened and who did it.

The unhurried pace of the novel, written in Fossum’s typical sparse, bare-as-bones prose, may bore those looking for a thriller with twists and turns aplenty. That’s not what this book is about.

In its measured examination of those drawn into Ida’s orbit, whether they be family or otherwise, it reveals how crimes are not always malevolent or premeditated and that good people can make bad decisions with lifelong repercussions. It’s also a detailed look at the burdens of guilt and the psychological impact of living a life bound up in lies, as well as being a fascinating account of an inspector’s thought processes and empathetic tactics used to solve the crime.

Karin Fossum is always worth a read, and Black Seconds only cements that reputation in my mind.

This is my 10th book for #TBR40. I bought it on Kindle last October when it was just 99p (as part of a “deal of the day” offer on Amazon) and read it last week when I was looking for a “palate cleanser” after a steady diet of heavy literary fiction.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting

‘I Can See in the Dark’ by Karin Fossum


Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 250 pages; 2013. Translated from the Norweigan by James Anderson.

Norweigan writer Karin Fossum is best known for her Inspector Sejer series, but I Can See in the Dark, published last year, is a stand-alone novel.

A story about a troubled loner

The story is told entirely through the eyes of 40-something Riktor, who has no family of his own and lives by himself in a small house on the outskirts of town.

He holds down a good job as a nurse in an elderly person’s care home, gets on well with his colleagues and finds ways to fill in his time between shifts. In other words, he leads a rather dull, uneventful, but otherwise productive life.

But all is not as it seems. Riktor is terribly lonely and desperately craves love and attention.

I don’t really understand my own situation, I don’t understand this sense of always being an outsider, of not belonging, of not feeling at home in the day’s routines. Forces I can’t control have torn me away from other people. I like being on my own, but I want a woman. If only I had a woman!

But as his narrative gently unfolds over a succession of short, crisply written chapters, we begin to learn that Riktor is not the quiet, gentle soul one might expect. He’s actually a rather troubled man, who doesn’t know how to properly interact with other people. He also claims he can see in the dark (hence the title):

I can see bushes and trees, buildings, posts and fences, I can see them all vividly glowing and quivering, long after dark. I can see the heat they emit, a sort of orange-coloured energy, as if they’re on fire. I once mentioned this to the school nurse when I was about ten. That I could see in the dark. She simply patted me on the cheek and then smiled sadly, the way you smile at an inquisitive child with a lively imagination. But once bitten twice shy: I never mentioned it again.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of all is the way in which he is deliberately negligent in his job: he fails to give his patients the medicine they have been prescribed and he likes to torture them when he thinks no-one is looking.

Of course things catch up with him, and one day the police accuse him of killing a patient in his care. He is arrested and held on remand for an extended period of time.

But as ever with a Karin Fossum novel, there’s an unusual twist, because Riktor is caught in a dilemma: he definitely has blood on his hands, but the crime he has committed isn’t the one for which he’s been charged.

Inside the head of a disturbed man

The most intriguing aspect of the novel is the way in which Fossum puts you squarely in the head of Riktor, who is clearly simple-minded and a little bit odd. His morals are dubious and he lacks empathy, but he knows how to operate in society without drawing too much attention to himself. He is also clever enough to figure out what people are thinking and has learned how to manipulate them to get what he wants.

But at no point do you want to cheer him on: this is not a Patricia Highsmith character who is so bad he’s good; this is the type of person you know lives and breathes among us. Indeed, he quite often turns up on the news bulletins having murdered a friend or loved one because he didn’t get what he wanted.

I Can See in the Dark is not your average crime thriller. It’s not so much about the what happened, but the why it happened. By digging around in the mind of someone who hasn’t followed the conventions of socially acceptable human behaviour, Fossum tries to show us what makes him tick.

It might not be terribly fast-paced but it’s a low-key novel that shimmers with suspense throughout. It’s a brutally honest account of a man caught up in a world that he doesn’t understand and is a superb portrait of a psychologically damaged killer, one that is unflinching, thought-provoking and deeply unsettling.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘In the Darkness’ by Karin Fossum


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 400 pages; 2013. Translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Over the years I have read several of  Karin Fossum’s perceptive crime novels. In the Darkness, first published in her native Norway in 1995, has recently been translated into English for the first time. It is the first book in her landmark Inspector Sejer series.

A body in the river

The story focuses on single mother and struggling artist Eva Magnus. One sunny day she is walking along the river with her seven-year-old daughter, Emma, when they discover a man’s body in the water.

For a few moments they stood transfixed, staring at the sodden, decomposed body as it floated, head first, in amongst the stones. He was lying face down. The hair on the back of his head was thin and they could make out a bald patch. Eva […] looked at the waxen-coloured corpse with its matted blond hair and couldn’t remember seeing him before. But those trainers — those blue and white striped high-top trainers.

Emma urges her to phone the police, but when Eva finds a public phone box to make the call she only pretends to do so. Instead, she speaks to her father and makes no mention of what she has found. She then takes Emma to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal — and tries to ignore the body in the river.

Of course, the police eventually discover the man and it’s clear his death wasn’t the result of drowning: he had 15 stab wounds in his lower back, bottom and abdomen.

Investigations by Inspector Konrad Sejer and his colleague Karlson reveal that the man had been missing for six months. He was 38 years old, married and had a six-year-old son. He was last seen when he took his car to meet a prospective purchaser: the vehicle was later found abandoned in the municipal dump.

Was he the unwitting victim of a “desperado wanting money” or did he have a large debt or know something he shouldn’t have known?

A whydunnit, not a whodunnit

The unusual thing about this novel — and this is common in all of the Fossum novels I have read — is that it’s pretty obvious from the start who committed the crime. What you don’t know is how they did it — and why.

This is a particularly tricky approach to take but Fossum does it expertly without any loss of narrative tension. The first part of the book is a cat-and-mouse game as Sejer hones in on the likely suspect; the rest is told as a confession from the killer’s perspective. What you end up getting is a police procedural cum psychological thriller. Indeed, Fossum ratchets up the tension by throwing in the odd red herring — and then she delivers a real twist at the end which had me sucking in my breath in complete surprise.

And while In The Darkness is a shocking tale, Fossum treats her subject matter — poverty, prostitution and murder — with huge delicacy and compassion. There’s a real humanity to her writing, because she is interested in exploring the impact of the crime, not only on the victim’s family but on the perpetrator and, to a lesser extent, the police themselves.  It’s hard not to read this without feeling empathy for all the characters — guilty and innocent alike.

Finally, I just wanted to mention something about the poorly designed, rather drab cover of this particular paperback edition. The picture of a slim little girl on the front has absolutely nothing to do with the story (seven-year-old Emma is mentioned very briefly in this book and it is clear that she is a rather obese child, which doesn’t match the image used). And then there’s the roundel, which proclaims Fossum as a contemporary Patricia Highsmith — I’m not sure the two authors have much in common, aside from the fact they are both interested in the criminal mind. Does this kind of marketing bumpf really push sales?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Caller’ by Karin Fossum


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 296 pages; 2012. Translated from the Norwegian by K.E. Semmel. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Norwegian author Karin Fossum is quickly turning into one of my favourite crime writers. The Caller is her tenth novel in the Inspector Sejer series — and the third one I have read. Even though the books feature the same detective they are not strictly police procedurals. Instead Fossum’s perceptive — and empathetic — eye turns towards the perpetrator and the victims as she explores the cause and effect of often horrendous crimes.

A baby drenched in blood

The Caller begins in spectacular fashion when an odd crime is carried out. A young couple, Lily and Karsten Sundelin, are eating a meal indoors while their baby sleeps peacefully in her pram in the garden. When Lily goes to bring baby Magrete inside she feels a terrible foreboding. The baby is drenched in blood. The understandably distraught parents assume she is bleeding from the mouth and rush her to hospital. But once she is checked over, the nurses reveal the baby is unharmed — and that the blood is not hers.

Cue a police investigation, headed by Inspector Sejer and his colleague, Jacob Skarre. Had Lily or Karsten done something to upset someone? Was this an act of revenge? Had a former jealous partner wanted to scare them? Or was it a woman who had lost her child in a terrible way?

Later that evening Sejer finds a hand-delivered postcard on his doorstep bearing the message: “Hell begins now”. It has a glossy photograph of a wolverine on the front. “There will be more attacks,” he tells his colleague. “We’re dealing with a beast of prey.”

And he is right: this shocking incident turns out to be the first in an increasingly bizarre string of brazen and cruel “pranks” that terrorises a wide cast of unsuspecting victims. The book charts the ensuing cat and mouse game between the perpetrator and Sejer and Skarre, who try to track him down.

Portrait of a tormentor

It’s not a plot spoiler to reveal that the perpetrator is a young man, Johnny Beskow, who still lives at home with his alcoholic mother, whom he loathes. We meet him in chapter 4 and we discover how he chooses his victims, and why.

But Fossum does not paint things in black and white: Beskow may be carrying out criminal acts, he may wish his mother was dead, he may be filled with malice — but there are reasons for his warped worldview. And he’s not without the capacity to love: he dotes on his elderly grandfather, whom he visits regularly, and the caged guinea pig he keeps in his bedroom.

Essentially The Caller is not a whodunit, but a whydunit: what makes a young man carry out such spiteful crimes on random victims? And will he eventually get his comeuppance?

The human cost of crime

This neatly structured book interleaves Beskow’s storyline with that of the police investigation and that of the victims, both before and after the crime is carried out — it is fascinating to see how the Sundelin’s marriage begins to crumble as each partner copes with the crime in different ways; Karsten is angry and eaten up by a desire for revenge; Lilly’s fragile vulnerability turns her into a nervous wreck and she can no longer function normally. And it is equally fascinating to see how Beskow rationalises his actions — and how his conscience begins to bother him.

But it is the exquisitely planned plot which makes this novel an exceptional one: the impossible-to-guess double-twist ending left me gasping in shock.

Ripe with intelligence, suspense and psychological insight, The Caller is the cleverest and most involving crime book I’ve read this year.

Agnete Friis, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Denmark, Fiction, Lene Kaaberbøl, Lithuania, Publisher, Setting, Soho Books

‘The Boy in the Suit Case’ by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis


Fiction – paperback; Soho Crime; 313 pages; 2011. Translated from the Danish by Lene Kaaberbøl.

If you thought all crime novels had to feature a police investigation, think again. In this Danish thriller, first published in 2008, there’s nary a police officer to be seen. Instead the star “investigator” is a Red Cross nurse, Nina Borg.

A toddler in a suitcase

The story, which is told in the third person throughout but from multiple viewpoints, opens in dramatic fashion. Nina collects a suitcase from a locker in the left luggage department of Copenhagen train station, hefts it down to her car in the underground car park and opens it away from prying eyes. What she finds inside shocks her:

In the suitcase was a boy: naked, fair-haired, rather thin, about three years old. His knees rested against his chest, as if someone had folded him up like a shirt. Otherwise he would not have fit, she supposed. His eyes were closed, and his skin shone palely in the bluish glare of the fluorescent ceiling lights. Not until she saw his lips part slightly did she realise he was alive.

Why is the toddler in the suitcase? Who put him in there? Where is his mother? Who owns the suitcase? And, perhaps most intriguingly, why did Nina collect it?

Wide cast of characters

The narrative back tracks to introduce a wide cast of characters, all of whom play a part in this extraordinary crime which crosses borders and the class divide. There is rich businessman Jan and his beautiful wife, Anne; Lithuanian Jučas and his older Polish girlfriend Barbara; single mother Sigita and her young son Mikas; Nina’s estranged friend, Karin; and then Nina herself, a nurse who helps abused women and children.

The story skilfully interleaves each character’s rich back story with events that unfold in heart-hammering fashion as Nina tries to work out not only who the boy belongs to but why he has been kidnapped — and by whom.

And because she chooses to do this without involving the police and without even telling her husband — admittedly, their marriage is on the rocks — there are moments of great tension and danger throughout.

An exciting story

But this isn’t an easy read. That’s mainly because the various narrative threads, told in alternate chapters, take some time to come together — it’s not until the final chapters that the reader comes to understand the connections between the different characters. But the effort is rewarding and the story is an exciting one.

Perhaps the novel’s greatest strength is that the authors — Lene Kaaberbøl is a fantasy writer and Agnete Friis a journalist and children’s author — take time to reveal the motivations of each character regardless of which side of the crime they are on. It makes for an intelligent, involving and compassionate read.

The translation, by one of the authors, is also superb. The prose feels effortless, but has a punch and depth to it, and it is so seamlessly written it’s impossible to tell it is the work of two people.

The Boy in the Suit Case was shortlisted for the Scandinavian Glass Key Award for Crime Fiction.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Kjell Eriksson, Publisher, Setting, Sweden, Thomas Dunne Books

‘The Princess of Burundi’ by Kjell Eriksson


Fiction – paperback; Thomas Dunne Books; 300 pages; 2006. Translated from the Swedish by Ebba Segerberg.

Kjell Eriksson’s The Princess of Burundi won the Swedish Academy Award for Best Crime Novel in 2002 — long before Stieg Larsson hit the scene.

It’s not your typical Scandinavian crime novel in which a single police detective takes centre stage; this one tends to focus on a whole police department and follows the steps they take, working together, to solve a brutal crime.

A man goes missing

The crime in question is the disappearance of John Jonsson, a dedicated father and collector of tropical fish (the title of the book is the name of a fish), who fails to return home after work one evening shortly before Christmas. His body is found the next day. There are stab wounds to his chest and arms, his fingers have been severed and there are cigarette burns on his body which indicate he may have been tortured.

But in quiet Uppsala, a university town north of Stockholm, who would want “Little John”, as he is known, dead? Had he got caught up in something illegal with his brother, a known criminal? Or had he wracked up gambling debts?

When a local woman is killed in her home a few days later, police wonder if the murders are linked. Is there a serial killer on the loose?

Exceptionally nuanced novel

While the blurb on the American edition of this book is slightly misleading — it claims a “killer terrorizes an entire frightened town” — the focus of this exceptionally nuanced novel is more on the outfall of the murder on the victims and family members left behind. John was married with a teenage son, both of whom are wracked by grief and unable to comprehend why anyone would want him murdered. And then there is his brother Lennart, who is filled with so much venom and rage he will do almost anything to avenge John’s death.

Coupled with this exploration of a family’s sudden bereavement, is a detailed police procedural in which we are introduced to a vast cast of law-enforcers — a dramatis personæ would have been helpful — all of whom are dealing with their own problems and insecurities but are wedded together like a tightly knit family.

Chief among these is Anne Lindell, a police inspector currently on maternity leave, who can’t keep her nose out of the case. (I note that the British editions of this novel bill it as the first in the “Inspector Anne Lindell series”.)

World weary chief

But my personal favourite was the world weary chief Ottosson, a man who has been in the job so long “evil was exhausting him”. During meetings and briefings, in which he holds sway, a philosophical tone sneaks into his arguments — he’s less focused on the crime in question and more interested in the underlying social reasons behind it. Not all of his colleagues agree, but there are some interesting debates about social welfare, immigration and the decline in educational standards that make The Princess of Burundi an intelligent read.

It is a dark, brooding, atmospheric story, one that is deeply insightful and perceptive. And while the solution to the crime isn’t particularly satisfying, as a study of the effects of that crime and the ways in which the police go about their business it is a very fine book indeed.

More in the series

There are several more in the series which have been translated into English, including The Cruel Stars of the Night, The Demon of Dakar and The Hand that Trembles. I liked the first one enough to want to read the rest…at some point.

Author, Åsa Larsson, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Maclehose Press, Publisher, Setting, Sweden

‘Until Thy Wrath Be Past’ by Åsa Larsson


Fiction – hardcover; MacLehose Press; 317 pages; 2011. Translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I remember how we died.

So begins Åsa Larsson’s haunting Scandinavian crime thriller Until Thy Wrath Be Past (the title refers to a passage from the Book of Job).

Set in rural Sweden, it tells the story of two teenage lovers who disappear while diving in a secluded —and frozen — lake one winter’s day. Their bodies are never found, but the beyond-the-grave narrator, who begins the book, reveals that they met with foul play.

When Wilma Persson’s body surfaces in the River Thorne, far from the lake, during the spring-time thaw, the authorities assume she simply drowned. But why are her lungs filled with water from a different source? And why is there green paint underneath her fingernails?

Enter prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson and police inspector Anna-Maria Mella, two “alpha females”, who launch an investigation into the girl’s death and a hunt for her boyfriend’s body.

This fast-paced narrative, which begins on April 16 and concludes on May 3 (the dates act as chapter headings), is largely told in the third person. But early on in the novel, the voice of Wilma, the dead girl, butts in:

I go to visit the prosecutor. She’s the first person to see me since I died. She’s wide awake. Sees me clearly when I sit down on her bed.

Admittedly this supernatural element* may not appeal to all readers, but it gives the story an added dimension: that of the victim, who can tell her version of what really happened. And it also gives us, the reader, a vital piece of information that the police know nothing about: the pair had discovered a plane at the bottom of the lake, a plane that had been carrying supplies for the Wehrmacht in 1943.

As it turns out, the investigation’s success hinges on the discovery of the plane — and its reason for being there. Larsson uses this to devastating effect, by interleaving the narrative with flashbacks to the Second World War in which Sweden collaborated with the Germans. (This seems to be a recurrent theme in Swedish crime fiction.)

What particularly makes this novel work is not just the superb characterisation (both Martinsson and Mella feel like real flesh-and-blood women, one of whom juggles motherhood with her career, another who is trying to make a passionate but complicated long-distance relationship work), but the subsidiary plot lines — the police dog-handler has an unrequited “thing” for Martinsson, which is strangely moving — and the way in which Larsson keeps the momentum, and the suspense, on overdrive. She is excellent at what I call the foreshadowing effect, giving us little clues that bad things are going to happen up ahead. For example, after one character makes what seems like an innocent phonecall to a neighbour, she writes:

He cannot know what a terrible mistake that is. What consequences that telephone call will have.

And of course it wouldn’t be a proper Scandinavian crime novel without plenty of moody and atmospheric descriptions:

A week passes. Snow crashes down from the trees. Sighs deeply as it collapses into the sunny warmth. Bare patches appear. The southern sides of antills heat up in the sun. The snow buntings return. Martinsson’s neighbour Sivving Fjallborg finds bear tracks in the forest. The big sleep of winter is over.

Until Thy Wrath Be Past is a terrific thriller, and while it’s part of the “Rebecka Martinsson crime series” of which there are three previous novels, it can be safely read as a standalone. I found it to be a heart-hammering read — the first chapter is one of the most exciting first chapters I’ve read in a long while — with a multi-layered plot and a satisfying, if slightly Hollywoodish, ending.

* If that’s not your kind of thing, it might help to know the girl’s first-person account begins to wane the further you get into the book.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Bad Intentions’ by Karin Fossum


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 192 pages; 2011. Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Judging by the number of Scandinavian crime thrillers that are 400 pages or more in length, I was pleasantly surprised to find Karin Fossum’s latest novel, Bad Intentions, had fewer than 200. This is the perfect size to fit in my bike bag, which meant I’ve spent much of this past week toting it into work for my lunch-time reading fix.

The novel — or should that be novella? — doesn’t follow the usual rules of the crime fiction genre. In many ways it’s not so much a whodunnit, but a whydunnit. There’s a twist though — isn’t there always? — which makes it the kind of book that gets you thinking.

The moral message of Bad Intentions is nicely summed up by one of the characters, who mid-way through the story opines: “We need a sense of decency. Without it we cannot live a good life.”

That sense of decency seems to have bypassed Axel Frimann, a 25-year-old advertising executive, who is by turns charming, domineering, ambitious and manipulative.

Together with his childhood friend Philip Reilly — a passive, directionless, drug-taking hospital porter — they invite a third friend, Jon Moreno, on a weekend trip to an isolated cabin by a lake. The trip is designed to cheer Jon up. Jon, lonely and withdrawn, has recently had a nervous breakdown and is currently residing in a hospital’s psychiatric ward.

But when Axel suggests a moonlit row across the lake in the middle of the night, Jon is reluctant to go. And probably with good reason — only two of the three men will return to shore.

I’m loathe to name which of the friends falls over board and drowns in the lake, but it’s not a plot spoiler to reveal that the two survivors decide to cover it up. The book then focuses on why they made this fateful decision. After all, if it was an accident — or a suicide — what have they got to hide?

This is where Inspector Sejer and his partner Jacob Skarre step in to find out. And while Bad Intentions isn’t strictly a police procedural — it largely focuses on the two survivors and the ways in which they deal with their guilty consciences — it does form an important element of the story.

It is only by Sejer and Skarre’s investigative work, mainly the interviews with family and friends, that enable the reader to sketch in details and hit upon clues to provide a bigger picture of what really happened on the lake and the events leading up to it.

The twist comes when a second body is found in another lake nearby. How is this linked to the first body? Or is it merely a red herring?

Sadly, I figured it all out before I had even reached the half-way point, but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment — in fact, I was waiting for Fossum to prove me wrong, but all she did was confirm my theory.

That said, this is a terrific crime novel that explores culpability, peer group pressure, betrayal and paranoia. Fossum’s prose style, translated by Charlotte Barslund, is crisp and clear, with not a word wasted — as it needs to be when the story is delivered in such a slim package. But this only goes to prove that bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better.

Bad Intentions is the ninth volume of the Inspector Sejer series (a tenth remains to be translated into English), but there’s no need to worry if you haven’t read the others: this can easily be enjoyed as a stand-alone book.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Denmark, Fiction, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Mercy’ by Jussi Adler-Olsen


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 512 pages; 2011. Translated from the Danish by Lisa Hartford. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

As far as Scandinavian crime fiction is concerned, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy beats the pants off Steig Larsson. This is the best crime novel I’ve read in years.

First published in Danish as Kvinden i Buret (The Woman in the Cage) in 2008, the book has won a raft of awards, including the Glass Key Award 2010 for Best Nordic Crime Thriller, and remained on the bestseller list in the author’s native Denmark for more than a year.

I’m not surprised. This is an intelligent, well plotted story with a cast of believable characters, and everything about it screams page-turner. I suspect that before long Mercy is the book that everyone is going to be reading, and it’s going to turn the author into a massive star in whichever territory it is published. And rightly so, I might add.

Mercy is the first book in the “Department Q” series (three others have yet to be translated into English). Department Q is the name of a newly created division within the Danish police force that is designed to look at “special cases”, specifically those that have run cold and remain unsolved.

The man to head up the division is homicide detective Carl Mørk. Carl is a tricky character, excellent at his job but not well liked by his colleagues because he is a bit of a maverick and tends to show up their inadequacies. When he returns from sick leave (he took a bullet in the head while investigating a crime scene), he is kicked downstairs, so to speak, and given an armful of files and an assistant, the mysterious but oh-so capable Syrian immigrant Assad, to help him.

Initially, Carl doesn’t seem much interested in working on these dead-end cases, preferring to kill time surfing the internet or playing solitaire on his computer. But when Assad digs out files relating to a young and beautiful politician, Merete Lynggaard, who vanished while on board a cruise ship five years earlier, he is embarrassed into changing his ways.

What Carl doesn’t know is that Merete is still alive. She is being held captive in a steel chamber somewhere in the Danish countryside. She does not know her captors, nor does she understand the purpose of her confinement. But what becomes clear is that the clock is ticking and if she fails to escape death is imminent.

These two narratives — Merete’s predicament and Carl’s investigation — are interleaved in fast-paced chapters which heighten the tension the further into the story you go. Will Carl find all the clues to save Merete’s life? Will Merete hang on long enough to be found by Carl?

Aside from the terrific momentum of the story — and the satisfying climax — what makes Mercy such a great read is its multi-layered narrative, namely a subsidiary murder investigation; the aftermath of Carl’s shooting incident which left one colleague dead and another paralysed; and Merete’s secret history looking after her mentally disabled younger brother. Coupled with superb characterisation and an authentic insight into workplace politics and bureaucracy, not only in the police service but the Danish parliament, too, is it any wonder Mercy kept me gripped for two whole days?

I especially appreciated the fact that even though the victim is female, and imprisoned against her will, she is not subject to gratuitous violence or sexual abuse. Adler-Olsen has made her into a feisty, determined and strong character who refuses to succumb to the twisted mindset of her cruel captor. If only more crime writers would avoid the obvious cliches in this way!

Carl is also an intriguing character, occasionally sexist and egotistical, but with a touching vulnerability that makes him strangely likeable. And his back story, a divorcee bringing up his step-son, is an unconventional one that Adler-Olsen is sure to thrash out more fully in the novels to come…

Mercy is a police procedural come pyschological thriller of the finest order. I can’t wait for the next in the series to be translated…

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

‘The Darkest Room’ by Johan Theorin


Fiction – paperback; Black Swan; 475 pages; 2009. Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy.

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.