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