REVIEWS by Adèle Geras
ECHOES FROM THE DEAD by Johan Theorin Black Swan pbk.
The decade we’ve just left has been remarkable for the number of wonderful Scandinavian crime/thriller writers who have been brought to the notice of British readers. This last year ended with the Stieg Larsson trilogy (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and its sequels) sweeping all before it in terms of sales and attention. These books are terrific and I recommend them to anyone who’s missed them. But...and it’s a big but...they are only the tip of a Nordic noir iceberg and the cliché seems appropriate in the circumstances. We are in very chilly territory with a great many of these writers. My favourites are Arnaldur Indridason, Hakan Nesser, Karin Alvtegen, and Karin Fossum. There’s Henning Mankell, of course, creator of Wallander and the Daddy of the genre but I have to confess to liking this particular detective better in both his screen interpretations than in print. Maybe I was too young when I tried him and ought to give him another go, but meanwhile, there are so many others that I’ve not done so.
I found Johan Theorin through a recommendation on a blog. I then went to Amazon and read a whole lot of rave reviews and bought his first novel. I couldn’t resist buying his his second and I’m waiting for the next most eagerly. Theorin is a journalist and his books are set on an island off the south-east coast of Sweden called Öland. ECHOES FROM THE DEAD concerns the disappearance and presumed death of a young boy in the alvar (look it up on Google...it’s an amazing landscape of miles of treeless flora, windswept and rocky and completely fascinating). Many years later, his mother goes back to the island to visit her father, now in an old people’s home. He used to be a sea captain and his hobby is making ships in bottles. He’s also something of a detective and when a parcel arrives with a shoe in it which seems to be the one his grandson was wearing on the last day of his life, the hunt is on for his abductor and killer. The story (in the past ) of the person we suspect may be the guilty party runs parallel to the present -day mystery and by the time all is revealed, we get not only a cracking good tale but also a sort of history of this amazing place with its people and customs and their struggles to make a living in a habitat that is anything but hospitable. The sea is never far away and its sights and smells pervade the narrative without lengthy paragraphs of nature description. It’s very skilfully done. The book has photographs in the back to give you some idea of what the place looks like (rather in the manner of WG Sebald) and this is something I wish more publishers would encourage. I can’t recommend this crime novel too highly. Do try it.
You will then, I’m sure, want to go on to Theorin’s second book, THE DARKEST ROOM (Doubleday trade pbk) just as I did.
This will appear in mass market pbk in March. It won the prestigious Glass Key Award for the best Nordic crime thriller of 2008 and was a number one bestseller in Sweden. We’re still on Öland but this time round it’s a place called Eel Point where the lighthouse stands. We have a house, which has a history and which may or may not have a haunted barn attached to it. We have a family busy with renovating it, just before Christmas. They, too, have a history which will become important later on. A tragedy occurs and although it’s presented as an accident, the rest of the book concerns the attempt of a brave policewoman ( who believes it might be a murder) to discover what really happened. Other people, both from the past and from the present, are caught up in the drama. There are children to worry about. Characters from ECHOES FROM THE DEAD recur and there’s an exciting race to find everything out and prevent other crimes before the arrival of a dreadful blizzard that everyone knows is coming. The dénouement is not only dramatic but also very snowy and cold and ghostly and I can’t help feeling that even now someone is greenlighting the movie and casting suitable actors. Read the book before that happens, because although the resulting film may well be splendid, nothing beats the pictures in your own head. Theorin is a superb newcomer to the Scandinavian crime pantheon.
THE OWL KILLERS by Karen Maitland. (Michael Joseph hbk)
Karen Maitland’s first novel, COMPANY OF LIARS , was a very good Black Death thriller with a terrific twist in the ending and an amazingly beautiful cover. It took you straight back to the Dark Ages and they turned out to be pretty dangerous and brutal too, and of course it was huge fun to read about them. Now Maitland has followed that with a story which is even more fascinating. It concerns the fate of several characters, each one telling his or her own story in the first person and far from being muddling, this technique makes for an exciting build- up, a kind of chorus of different voices, chiming in, one after another and in the process creating a beautifully nuanced story of hideous crime, poverty, ignorance, faith, ambition, greed and superstition. The Christian Church has a rival in the Old Religion and this bit of Norfolk, in the early 14th century, is riven with disputes over the souls, property and allegiance of the peasantry, who live in dreadful conditions and who nevertheless manage to wrest some kind of normal existence (and even a kind of pleasure in life) out of their dire situation. Then there is a group of women: beguines, from Bruges, who are seeking to set up a sister beguinage in England. They are wise, civilised, kindly and efficient and the contrast between conditions in their community and those in the nearby houses, both rich and poor, is striking. Envy fills many hearts. Fear of the unknown has a very bad effect on some. Add into the mix pregnancies, floods, relics, leprosy, a witch, sexual relationships of various kinds and men who enjoy dressing up in huge owl masks and terrorizing the population and you have a rich stew of a book which you won’t be able to put down, even though your arms might need a rest. It’s very heavy and fat and the cover is just as good as the one on Maitland’s first book. Congratulations to everyone concerned at Michael Joseph for producing a really handsome volume and to Maitland for keeping us glued to the (mostly ghastly but with occasional respite) goings- on all the way to the end. I can’t wait for the next book by this author. She writes very well indeed , eschewing completely cod Middle- Ages- speak. There’s an excellent glossary which tells you about the beguinages and other things and this is most helpful. It’s a terrific book for winter evenings by the fire. You can read it and thank your lucky stars you’re living in the 21st century. A very happy reading year to everyone!