Chilled by Roslund and Hellstrom

This week’s post comes to us from Ali Karim who is or has been editor, writer or contributor to just about every crime fiction publication worth its salt in recent years and here discusses how he came to read – and appreciate – the work of the Swedish crime writing duo made up of journalist Anders Roslund and reformed criminal Börge Hellström

I was taken aback last December when I heard the terrible news of the passing of Maxine Clarke, better known with her reviewing hat as “Petrona”. The book reviewing world lost one its champions, especially one for an eye for translated fiction. I often shared similar interests with Maxine, especially with the work of the Swedish duo [Anders] Roslund and [Borge] Hellstrom.

In October 2010, Roslund and Hellstrom were over in the UK launching their novel Three Seconds. Their publisher Quercus had arranged a party in the West End. Many critics / reviewers were invited and I was delighted to see Karen Meek and Maxine Clarke among the guests.

During the party, I managed to interview Roslund Hellstrom for The Rapsheet and produced a two part feature.

In part one, I referenced Maxine’s review for The Vault [aka BOX 21], a novel that I also loved but Maxine’s insight like all her reviews was delightful –

The Vault is a very dark book indeed, a compelling, fast-paced and fresh take on those well-worn staples of crime-fiction: the hostage drama and sex-trafficking. It is also a police procedural, told with relentless cynicism. I think it’s an excellent novel, but you have been warned!

I think this book is quite brilliant, most particularly in the story of the tragic Lydia, both in the present day and in the past, as she remembers her younger life and as Sundqvist finds out the details of her betrayal. It made me very angry indeed as the authors explore to the limit the extent to which the police bind together to protect their own, and how in so doing they are betraying those weaker victims of society who not only need their protection the most, but who the police are entrusted to serve. 

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In part two of my feature I interviewed Roslund Hellstrom as a precursor to their visit to Bouchercon 2010 in San Francisco.

So it appeared that Maxine and I agreed in our enthusiastic championing of these two Swedish Writers –

the-beast-roslund-hellstromMy introduction to Roslund (a journalist) and Hellström (a reformed ex-criminal who works to help place ex-cons back into society) came during the winter of 2005. As usual, I was reading more books than I ever had time to review. But one that I did want to comment on–The Beast, Roslund and Hellström’s debut novel–I found I could not write a word about. Although I’ve read many shocking and disturbing works of crime fiction in my time, The Beast took my psyche beyond anything I had ever experienced before. After I’d finished the book, I reflected back with new insight on the précis that publisher Little, Brown had sent along with it:

Two children are found dead in a basement. Four years later their murderer escapes from prison. The police know if he is not found quickly, he will kill again. But when their worst fears come true and another child is murdered in the nearby town of Strengnas, the situation spirals out of control. In an atmosphere of hysteria whipped up by the media, Fredrik Steffansson, the father of the murdered child, decides he must take revenge. His actions will have devastating consequences. As anger spreads across the whole country, the two [Stockholm] detectives assigned to the case–Ewert Grens and Sven Sunkist–find themselves caught up in a situation of escalating violence. A powerful and at times profoundly shocking novel, The Beast has been likened to both Hitchcock and Le Carré. It is also an important and timely exploration of what can happen when we take the law into our own hands. It has been shortlisted for Glasnyckeln 2005 [The Glass Key Award] for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year.

I am the father of three children, and what The Beast did was challenge my bleeding-heart-liberal values system. It made me think about the question: What would I be capable of doing, should a predatory pedophile commit the unthinkable act of murdering my offspring?

I found it as disturbing as Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone, another book about youngsters victimized by adults, published seven years earlier. I thought perhaps I would be capable of exacting a terrible retribution from my children’s attacker. But Roslund and Hellström added a further dimension to their tale, detailing the consequences that can come of such vengeful, blind-rage acts.

After I finished that novel, I couldn’t rid myself of the images it had embedded in my mind. And the idea of revisiting the world of The Beast in order to write a review repulsed me. So I put the book away in a box and tried to erase the memory of having read it.

Then along came Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008). I was already interested in Swedish crime fiction, but that work made me so much more so. After hassling the delightful Lucy Ramsey and Nicci Praça at Quercus Publishing for an early copy of Dragon Tattoo, I published the first English-language review of it here in The Rap Sheet. I went on to write more about Larsson and his debut novel. But, like everybody else, I had to wait … and wait … and wait until its sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, was released by Quercus in 2009. In the meantime, I found a copy of Roslund and Hellström’s Box 21 (published in the States as The Vault), the follow-up to The Beast–also starring detectives Sven Sundkvist and Ewert Grens–in my possible-review pile. I held it in my hands as if it were a cobra preparing to strike. The Beast still haunted me; was I ready yet to give Box 21 a try?

Thankfully, Box 21’s plot did not involve children. Here’s the synopsis:

the-vault-box-21-roslund-hellstromWhen a severely wounded woman is brought to a hospital in Stockholm, doctors are horrified to learn that her injuries are the result of a brutal whipping. She is Lydia, a victim of people-trafficking, a young girl from Lithuania sold by her boyfriend and now trapped in a Stockholm brothel, forced to repay her “debt.” In the same hospital, police officer Sven Sundkvist and senior officer Ewert Grens are chasing a lead that may just expose a notorious mafia boss, a dangerous man Grens hates with a vengeance. Two stories of passionate reprisal twist together, ending in a dramatic climax: two bullet-riddled bodies and a room full of hostages in the hospital’s basement. But in the cold light of day, will Sven protect the senior officer he so admires, even from his own corruption?

So I brewed up some coffee one evening, cracked Box 21’s spine, and discovered another deeply twisted yarn that held a mirror to my values system. Petrona’s Maxine Clarke summed up my own reaction to Box 21, calling it “a very dark book indeed, a compelling, fast-paced and fresh take on those well-worn staples of crime fiction: the hostage drama and sex-trafficking. It is also a police procedural, told with relentless cynicism. I think it’s an excellent novel, but you have been warned!”

Following the release of Box 21, though, Roslund and Hellström pretty much fell off my radar, because Little, Brown UK stopped publishing their work in English. Which was a great disappointment. Even though their stories were disquieting and forbidding, I was impressed by their writing abilities and their sheer brilliance in unfolding a tale ripped from the headlines. The pair were also fearless in handling subjects unflinchingly, that many other scribes would have avoided.

Today, I miss Maxine’s insight into the crime-fiction genre, as she championed so many writers, introducing them to readers.

I am delighted that we are remembering Petrona with an Annual Award keeping Maxine Clarke’s name alive, as well as using her name to enthuse readers with the best of translated crime fiction.

Ali Karim 

Book Details:

authors: Anders Roslund and reformed criminal Börge Hellström (learn more at their website)
original language: Swedish
translator: The Beast, Anna Paterson; Box 21/The Vault, unknown (possibly the authors themselves)
publication date (UK): The Beast 2005, Box 21/The Vault 2009

Contributor Details:

Ali Karim is a Company Director, freelance journalist and book reviewer living in England. In addition to being the Assistant Editor of the e-zine Shots, he’s also a contributing editor at January Magazine, writes for Deadly Pleasures and Crimespree magazines as well as Ali is also an associate member [and literary judge] for both the British Crime Writers Association as well as The International Thriller Writers Inc


Tribute to Maxine Clarke

I have thought for some time about posting an appropriate tribute to dear Maxine.
I decided it would be nice to repost a review and mini essay that I produced while Maxine was still with us back on 9 November 2010.
Red Wolf by Liza Marklund was published in Sweden as Den Roda Vargen in 2003, but we have had to wait till 2010 for this translation by Neil Smith, deputy editor of Swedish Book Review.
Crime journalist Annika Bengtzon, recovering from the traumas that she faced in The Bomber, is working on the story of a terrorist attack at the F21 base at Kallax, outside Lulea, which occurred in November 1969. A Draken fighter-plane exploded, and a young conscript died after being horrifically burned.
She travels north to find that Benny Ekland, the journalist she was due to meet, had been killed in a hit and run accident. She meets a young witness , Linus Gustafsson, who tells her that the accident was in fact cold blooded murder and decides to dig deeper. She learns about Ragnwald, [ragn-divine power, vald-ruler], a member of a left wing group, who disappeared decades earlier, and became a professional killer for ETA.
Her witness, Linus, is murdered, and then there are other victims whose families receive handwritten Maoist tracts in the post.
Has Ragnwald returned and why?
Annika painstakingly pieces together this story of misguided young left wing revolutionaries, while her obnoxious boss Anders Schyman schemes to block his business rivals, and her pathetic husband Thomas is unfaithful.
Red Wolf is an excitingly detailed, not to be missed, thriller in which Liza Marklund deals with among other things, many of the problems faced today by women.
Annika Bengtzon is a heroine trying to cope with a demanding job, even more demanding children, whom she adores, a philandering husband, and close friends with similar problems.
It is part of Annika’s charm that she is not perfect, and she can be devious and even hysterical at times. This makes her seem like a real person, and not some kind of fantasy figure.
Liza Marklund’s language when describing Sweden’s social problems is terse and concise:
This really was another country, or at least another town. Not Lulea, and not really Sweden. Annika let the car drift through the shanty town, astonished by its atmosphere.
The Estonian countryside, she thought. Polish suburbs.
Annika seemingly has very little time for those spoilt children from the social democratic rich countries, who chose to follow a violent path, however temporarily.
The ruler with divine power-not a bad alias. Did it actually mean anything, other than delusions of grandeur?
But then what was terrorism, if not that?
More than anything I enjoyed as someone who was a student during the turbulent 1960s the political wisdom and insight contained in the pages of Red Wolf, a lot of which is applicable today to a slightly different situation.
‘But surely they were communists as well?’
‘Oh yes ,’ Berit said, wiping her chin with the napkin. ‘But nothing upset the rebels more than those who almost thought like them.’
I do hope we get the remaining Annika Bengtzon books translated soon, and hope that the translation of Red Wolf was not a side effect of the Stieg Larsson phenomena, or the association with JP, but on its own merits.

In September Maxine at Petrona cleverly analyzed the elements that defined Stieg Larsson’s three novels, and that could be used to liken other novelists to him.

Liza Marklund had already written five novels between 1999 and 2003 [The Bomber, Studio69, Paradise, Prime Time and Red Wolf] before the first Stieg Larsson was published, and it is interesting that many of those elements could apply to her books as well.
1] They have exciting plots with the heroine frequently in danger.
2] There is a central female character. Although Annika Bengtzon is not as “unusual” as Lisbeth Salander she is a character women can identify with, and men want to be with.
3] Annika Bengtzon is a campaigning journalist, as is Blomqvist.
4] In Larsson’s world the baddies are very bad and the goodies good. In Liza’s books Annika is a real person and far from perfect, while some of the baddies have perhaps made the wrong choices in life.
5] Each of the three Larsson books is different, TGWTDT [Tattoo] is a variation on the locked room mystery, TGWPWF [Fire] is a fugitive drama, and TGWKTHN [Hornets Nest] is a political spy thriller.
Marklund’s books are also variations on a theme with people in an isolated manor house in Prime Time [I have not read this one], and international criminal gangs and social service swindles in Paradise.
6] There are lots of detail in both Stieg Larsson’s, and Liza Marklund’s books.
We get details of how Annika gets her information in Sweden’s very open society, and of the machinations involved in running a newspaper.
7] There is a curiosity factor concerning the author.
Larsson because of his campaigning journalism and early death, Marklund because she is a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and an attractive woman.
8] The books of both authors are set at an easy reading level, although I found Marklund’s books a lot easier to read.
9] The Larsson books are now successful films, and there will be Hollywood versions! Some of Marklund’s books have been filmed, and there are more in the pipeline.
10] Both authors books have won awards in other countries before their publication in English.
There are also differences between the books, and the characters in them, for instance Annika Bengtzon is married and heterosexual, while Lisabeth Salander is single and bisexual. But another element that links these books is that the male characters are bland, and usually weak, in comparison with the strong female leads.
Maxine has given us a template for deciding in future whether the blurbs “The Next Stieg Larsson” or “Reminiscent of Stieg Larsson’ are a valid comparison.  

The Inaugural Petrona Award Shortlist

The winner of the first Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year will be announced on 1 June at CrimeFest in Bristol. The award has been created to honour the memory of Maxine Clarke who, blogging as Petrona, was tirelessly promoting Scandinavian crime fiction translated into English long before Stieg Larsson grabbed the world’s attention. This year’s shortlist was derived from Maxine’s published reviews of Scandinavian crime fiction published in the UK in 2012 and the contenders are:

PiercedEngerPIERCED by Thomas Enger, translation by Charlotte Barslund which Maxine thought even better than Enger’s excellent debut novel (BURNED). In this novel the journalist at the heart of this Norwegian series, Henning Juul is asked to find evidence that a prisoner due for an appeal hearing is innocent of the crime he has been convicted of. The carrot dangled before the vulnerable journalist is that Tore Pulli, the prisoner, claims to know something about the fire which injured Juul and killed his young son. Maxine thought the many threads of PEIRCED “combine to make the novel a great combination of detection and thriller”, found it “endearing that Juul sees the world through the eyes of a wordsmith” and enjoyed the occasional references: for crime fiction aficionados such as the mention of French anti-corruption magistrate and turned novelist  Eva Joly.

BlackSkiesIndridasonBLACK SKIES by Arnaldur Indridason, translation by Victoria Cribb, is set partly in the recently turbulent world of the Icelandic financial sector and centres on detective Sigurdur Óli who is asked by an old friend for some discreet help when his sister-in-law and her husband are being blackmailed due to an ill-considered episode of wife-swapping. When Sigurdur Óli discovers the blackmailer dead he decides to investigate the case without telling his colleagues all the salient facts. Maxine’s review includes this summary

…an author as experienced as Indridason never forgets that he’s writing a crime novel first and foremost; the plot is a satisfying and topical one. It is well-paced, as Sigurdur Óli’s and the official lines of enquiry obscure each other until they merge; the story then takes a sudden new direction – which is when the author fully gets his teeth into the financial cowboys (“the new Vikings”) that have wrecked his country’s economy and the lives of many of its citizens. Yet the author also provides us with an excellent character study of Sigurdur Óli, whose arrogance at the start of the book gives way to some personal insight and maturity by the end, partly by his new willingness to examine his relationships with friends and family, but in particular via the tragic case of Anders [a local addict whose revenge fantasy plays out in parallel with the main story].

LastWillMarklundLiza15232_fLAST WILL by Liza Marklund, translation by Neil Smith is the sixth novel to feature Swedish journalist Annika Bengtzon and Maxine thought it “…a fantastic, intelligent crime thriller, containing all the elements [she loved] about the genre.” As it opens Annika is attending the annual Nobel prize banquet on behalf of the paper when the laureate for medicine and the head of the Nobel committee are shot. Because she is a witness Annika is not allowed to cover the incident but does carry on an unofficial investigation. Maxine went on to say of LAST WILL

It is a clever, muscular thriller, combining exciting action with analyses of many contemporary issues: the dangers of security and terrorist legislation, in particular in the tragic case of a man accused of the Nobel atrocity; the plight of modern journalism and what proprietors do to survive in the internet era; the politics of the science profession and the scope for corruption by the financial interests of drug companies; some great descriptions of biological research; the ethics of scientific publication; and, underlying it all, a cracking, puzzling crime – why was the Nobel victim chosen, who was behind the events of that night, and what is the relationship between the first and subsequent crimes? None of these themes is treated as a cliché or in any predictable way; each is attacked with a fresh perspective by the author, abetted by Annika’s characteristic refusal to compromise.

AnotherTimePerssonANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER LIFE by Leif G.W. Persson, translation by Paul Norlen, is the second part of a trilogy subtitled ‘the story of a crime’ and opens with a consideration of a terrorist attack on the German embassy in Stockholm in 1975 before moving on to a 1989 murder investigation and an even more modern investigation a further ten years after that. After observing some stylistic and topical links to the work of eminent Swedish crime writers Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo Maxine says of the book’s opening segment

The presentation of this first, short section of the book is so distinctive, setting the tone for the rest. It is measured and sober, describing enormities of violence, procedural deficiencies, and institutional stupidities in dispassionate terms, allowing the reader to absorb their full impact. The author’s refusal to be overtly opinionated at first gives his words a face-value authority, but as the book progresses one sees the extent to which the author is wooing the reader to his particular subversive perception of his country’s criminal justice system.

She finishes her review with these thoughts

There are many layers of subtlety in this gripping novel which I haven’t addressed in this brief review, but which I greatly appreciated – in particular the acute characterisations, including (in some cases) the disparities between people’s thoughts and actions. I can only urge you to read it. I eagerly devoured every word, even though it is a very long book. In its superb anatomy of Sweden using the police and criminal justice system as a metaphor, as well as many of the ways characters are presented and evolve, Leif Persson is the true heir of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, authors of the best crime-fiction series ever written.

You still have a couple of weeks to read all four titles vying for the first Petrona Award and, until 29 May, you can vote on which of the novels you think will win the award and which of them you want to win the award. Head over to Euro Crime to vote and stay tuned to find out which of these fantastic novels takes out the inaugural Petrona Award.


This week’s contribution comes from a university librarian with varied interests across the reading and writing world, including Scandinavian crime fiction. Barbara Fister’s essay describes the journey she sees in the author’s writing.

One of my favorite writers is the Swedish author Åsa Larsson, whose series set in the far north of Sweden combines lovely writing, complex characters, and an evocative setting.

When I read the first in the series, SUN STORM (aka THE SAVAGE ALTAR), I described it as “a stunning book, beautifully written and engaging, that takes us from Stockholm, where Rebecka Martinsson works long hours in a soulless law office on tax cases, to Kiruna in the arctic north, where a man Rebecka knew has been murdered ritualistically in a church – and his sister, Rebecka’s childhood friend, is the prime suspect. The massive church built to house a revivalist, fundamentalist sect called The Source of All Our Strength, has pastors who aren’t cooperating with the investigation, led by a very pregnant police detective. The book has wonderful characters, a twisty plot, and a tremendous sense of place. Though the ending was a bit over the top, I found the book quite amazing.”

I put off reading the second book in the series for some time, but finally got around to reading THE BLOOD SPILT. As in SUN STORM, religion plays a major role. A woman pastor, who has rubbed the religious establishment the wrong way, has roused the local women with her feminist principles and encouragement to throw off their oppression and enjoy life. The part of the book I liked the most was the way Rebecka, who had returned to Stockholm and to her soulless work as a tax lawyer, suppressing the emotional upheaval of what happened in SUN STORM but too traumatized to pick up her career again, rediscovers the natural world and her long-suppressed love of her northern roots. I was reminded, reading this book, that Larsson is probably the strongest of the Scandinavian crime fiction writers in terms of style. Her language is evocative and lovely.

The third book, THE BLACK PATH, was aggravating – not because it wasn’t a good novel, but because it did some things so brilliantly and others – not as brilliantly. It’s a complex story involving a Swedish mining corporation’s investments in African mines, the inner lives of three partners in the mining operation, the sister of one of the threesome who has been raised by a Sami family and has become an artist with a clairvoyant streak, plus further development of the characters of Rebecka Martinsson and Anna-Maria Mella, the more practical and family-oriented police investigator. It seemed to me there was simply too much going on in this book, particularly in the cinematic ending; yet there was also so much that was so very good that I was more cross than I would have been if I didn’t admire it so much.

UntilThyWrathBePastLars1503_fEverything I find admirable bout Asa Larsson’s work came together for me in her fourth book, UNTIL THY WRATH BE PAST. Asa Larsson is an excellent writer, but added to her stylish writing is a group of intriguing characters and a vivid setting that the author infuses with love. It’s one of those settings that seems terrifically appealing because the author has written so beautifully about it, though in reality I doubt I would really enjoy living in Kurravaara, so far north that in the winter the sun barely shows its face and in April, when this story takes place, the sun rises before 4 a.m. Rebecka Martinsson, who is now working as a prosecutor, seems happy, settled in the home that she left in her late teens. As UNTIL THY WRATH BE PAST opens, Rebecka seems grounded and fulfilled.
She is soon presented with what seems an unfortunate tragedy: the body of a long-missing girl is found in a river. She and her boyfriend went diving months ago, and now that her body has been discovered, authorities conclude they died in an accident. But readers know otherwise: they were murdered. While they were diving in an ice-bound lake someone deliberately blocked the hole they had cut in the ice, which we learn from the point of view of the girl, who remains in the story, observing and commenting on the action. Though I am not fond of supernatural elements in mysteries, Larsson pulls it off in large part because the dead girl is a vividly-realized character in her own right, the maverick child of a neglectful mother who came to live with her great-grandmother. The passages that give us her point of view after death give the reader a strong sense of a willful, daring young woman who won’t rest until her story is told.

Rebecka, her curiosity roused by a dream, suggests that the water in the dead girl’s lungs be tested, and so they discover that the girl drowned in a lake, where in the late years of World War II a Nazi supply plane went down. Someone, it seems, wants to be sure the wreck is never found. She and Inspector Anna-Maria Mella, who has become estranged from her closest colleagues following a decision she made in THE BLACK PATH, begin to investigate. In some ways, this isn’t much of a mystery; we have a strong inkling of who in the small village is likely responsible and we see some of the story from the point of view of a participant or witness to the murder. Yet Larsson has created a compelling story as we peel back the historical layers and the tainted relationships behind the deliberate drowning of two young people.

In this latest volume in the series, Larsson really hits her stride. She has given us a cast of characters we have come to know and care about, a setting that is vivid, a ghostly young woman who has a grounded, earthy reality, and a compelling story that explores Sweden’s troubling relationship with Nazi Germany. She offers a terrific combination of psychologically probing character development, action, and (for lack of a better word) a kind of poetry in her writing style that makes this series a particularly fine contribution to the genre.

Book Details:

author: Asa Larsson (learn more at wikipedia)
original language: Swedish
translator: Laurie Thompson
publication date (UK): August 2011 (Maclehouse Press (original publication date 2008)

Contributor Details:

Barbara Fister is a university librarian, writer of mysteries and observer of reading and writing in our culture. Her web home is here, her blog is here and her Scandinavian crime fiction interests are highlighted here.