A Great Crime Novel Recommendation

Wolf WinterThis recommendation comes from Crimeworm, who blogs at Crimeworm

Introduction:

It’s obviously incredibly difficult to recommend a novel to someone you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting – particularly someone as influential, knowledgeable and, of course, loved as Maxine was. From what I know of her, which isn’t a great deal, she was fanatical about Nordic/Scandi Noir – call it what you will. That’s when Wolf Winter sprang to mind. It is a Swedish mystery – but set way back in 1717. I hope, were Maxine here to read the book, she would it enjoy it as much as I and many other bloggers did.

Anyway, here’s my thoughts on Cecilia Ekback’s Wolf Winter.

Wolf Winter is the debut novel by Cecilia Ekbäck, whose family originates, not surprisingly, from the north of Sweden and Lapland. This doubtless accounts for the novel’s hugely strong sense of atmosphere and place, and makes it the unique book that it is. The phrase also refers to the longest and hardest times in a person’s life – so, for our main characters, it is certainly an appropriate title!

It’s set in 1717, and is the story of a family: father Paavo, mother Maija, and daughters Frederika, 14, and Dorotea, 6, who move to a settlement on Blackåsen mountain in a “swap” deal with Paavo’s uncle (mainly arranged because Paavo has developed a phobia of his work on the sea as a fisherman), from the seas of Finland to the mountains of Sweden. So they arrive at their new settlement on the side of the remote mountain, where there are only six households, not including the Lapps, who only come down to the mountain in winter from higher ground. Life is very tough, and really seems to consist of survival for the families.  Obviously, as it’s so far north, in summer it’s almost completely light, and in winter the opposite.

At the very opening of the book, just three days after arriving on the mountain, Frederika and Dorotea come across the dead body of a man in a glade. Their mother fetches other residents of the mountain, none of whom she’s yet met, who dismiss the death as a wolf attack. But Maija knows wolf don’t attack humans, and even if they did, the wound wouldn’t resemble that inflicted on Eriksson, which she believes was caused by a rapier. The other settlers would also know this. She believes Eriksson was murdered, but knows that the pool of suspects on the mountain is obviously small, and that she, as a newcomer and a woman, is not in a position to publicly disagree with the longer established male settlers. So she does her best to gather more evidence (a little of which she manages to do at an examination of the body, requested by Elin, the dead man’s widow, and also attended by the priest.) Thereafter, she watches and waits, taking in all she can regarding relationships between the settlers, past disputes, etc, hoping to find out the truth behind Eriksson’s demise. Meanwhile, before winter starts, Paavo decides it would be prudent to travel south to gain employment, and leaves his wife and daughters to run the smallholding – although to me, this merely seems a plot device to allow Maija to take centre stage.

Frederika, the oldest daughter, seems to have some kind of supernatural powers, which are recognised by Fearless, one of the Lapps. She is also on a quest to find out what happened to Eriksson, although she and her mother seem the only ones concerned, as was apparently an unpopular man who liked to discover people’s secrets and use them for his own gain. Almost everyone, it seemed, was on remote Blackåsen mountain to hide away and conceal secrets – and in the course of Maija and Frederika’s respective investigations, many such secrets people would prefer to keep to themselves come tumbling out. And I can promise you, some will certainly surprise you. Other secrets are revealed when people take trips to the coast and “make enquiries” about their neighbours .

Wolf Winter is a novel most of which I really enjoyed, although I did put it down for a week or two at one point as it seemed to lose momentum slightly. About halfway through, though, the story picked up considerably, mainly with Frederika’s attempts to use supernatural powers she feels she may have, and with the secrets of the various settlers being revealed – some innocuous, others the hiding of which you can certainly understand.

Where Ekbäck really excels, though, is in her description of the weather – to me, it beggared belief that people were able to survive in these circumstances, never mind live self-sufficiently! One description of a storm is so evocative, you can almost feel the wind blowing the windows in. The nature of the area; its animals, and particularly its plants, is another area where you can tell she’s done her research.

I really liked Maija – she was a tough, resourceful woman who got on with what had to be done, without complaint, although there were a few points in the book where it was clear she wondered what they’d let themselves in for by moving somewhere so isolated and demanding. Paavo, to be honest, we barely got to know, although it was apparent that, of the couple, Maija was definitely the stronger one. However, their relationship was without doubt rock solid – despite receiving no letters from him throughout the winter (we learn of the reason why) she has faith he will return.

Frederika was equally likeable – sweetly protective of her little sister, she initially rejected any sign of any kind of “power”, before doing her best to use it – not for her own benefit, but to see justice done and protect her family. The justice that she sees done, though, may not be for the crime she’d initially hoped…

I’d really recommend Wolf Winter as a perfect winter read (although I may be a tad late for this winter!) It would also probably please the many fans of Nordic Noir, containing as it does murder and mystery at its heart. Also, if you enjoy books with a supernatural element, this would also be just the ticket for you.

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