untitled THE BLACK PATH

Åsa Larsson

Translated by Marlaine Delargy

MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£18.99

Late last summer, MacLehose Press published Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past. Despite multiple attempts in my review to convince people that it was the third book in the series, it turns out that it was, actually, the fourth. MacLehose’s latest Larsson release, bearing the much less unwieldy title of The Black Path, is the missing third book:

Do you remember what happened?

Rebecka Martinsson saw her dead friend lying there on the gravel in Poikkijärvi. And the world shattered. And they had to hold onto her to stop her walking into the river.

This is the third book.

Once again we find ourselves in the cold and snowy wastes of Sweden’s little section of the Arctic Circle. When a woman is found, frozen solid, in an unoccupied fishing hut, Kiruna detectives Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke are called in to investigate. When she thaws out, she is quickly identified – she has recently been in the news, after all – as part of the Kallis Mining management team. She appears to have been tortured before her death and, as the detectives investigate they discover that she is something of an enigma, even to those closest to her. Assisted by Rebecka Martinsson – freshly released from a psychiatric hospital and now working in the much less stressful environment of the Kiruna public prosecutor’s office – a second death is soon uncovered, shedding a whole new light on the investigation and the seemingly untouchable people involved.

Many of the elements that made Until Thy Wrath Be Past a winner for me are present once again here: the distinctly Swedish feel; the supernatural elements (much more subtle than previously, but definitely present); the wonderful characters and pitch-perfect story-telling. The Black Path is told in good part in the form of flashbacks, from various different points of view (Mella’s is, perhaps, conspicuous by its absence, although she remains central to the plot). Through this manner we get to watch the central characters develop, not only Martinsson, but also the dead woman, her brother, her friend, and various other characters that will have important roles as the plot plays out. This is a book defined by its characters and their relationships with each other; there is undoubtedly a mystery to be solved, but it is much less important than the interpersonal dynamics (if I can be allowed that small digression into management-speak) that led to the murder, Larsson once more focussing on the why rather than the who or the how.

The two main characters (I’m still slightly baffled by the fact that these books are all identified as “A Rebecka Martinsson Investigation”), while only appearing for around half of the book between them, are still the most powerful driving force behind this story. Here we have two very different women – the fragile and insecure Martinsson, and the brash, no-nonsense Mella – who somehow grow as friends as the story progresses and seem to fit comfortably together, despite their differences. There is a description early on that, for me, summed up the differences perfectly:

Martinsson watched them and thought there was a faint, but clearly perceptible sensual signal in that way of pushing aside the hair, the fingers following the strand of hair to the very end. On their way back to the knee or the arm of the chair, the tips of the fingers fleetingly brushed the chin or the mouth.

Mella watched the same movements and thought they were always bloody fiddling with their faces, like junkies.

These are quirky, loveable characters that, for some reason, remind me of the characters from the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. It’s a difficult balance to strike: the dark business of murder and corruption coupled with characters whose sanity depends on their sense of humour, and the banality of their everyday lives, without ever reaching the level of satire or outright comedy. Larsson achieves it, seemingly effortlessly, producing a story that moves from horror to laughs and back again in the blink of an eye.

The Black Path is, ultimately, a collection of character studies disguised as a piece of cleverly-plotted crime fiction. Three-dimensional characters, beautiful, freezing locations and a puzzle that will keep you guessing to the end combine to make this a compelling and hugely entertaining read. Åsa Larsson proves, once again, that when it comes to Scandinavian crime fiction, she is the one to beat, and cements her place on my own personal “must read” list.

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