Point Blank (oneworld-publications.com)
Tuva Moodyson is a deaf reporter who has given up life in London to move back to Sweden to be close to her mother, who is receiving palliative care in hospice. Living in the small northern town of Gavrik, Tuva is the only full-time reporter at the local weekly paper. When the body of a hunter is discovered in the nearby forest, Tuva sees the opportunity of a lifetime, and sets out to tell the only version of the story with the local perspective. It isn’t long before local police are linking this death with a series of murders in the 1990s, and as Tuva investigates, she discovers that the locals aren’t as friendly, or as accommodating as she had first thought. Now it’s a question of whether or not she can stay alive long enough to see the story to its conclusion.
Dark Pines introduces us to Tuva Moodyson and to the wilds of Northern Sweden. Set in the small town of Gavrik, and the surrounding forests, Will Dean presents an intense and thrilling story with a brash, no-nonsense lead, and set in a vast yet claustrophobic locale. Throw in the various oddball residents with whom Tuva deals during the course of her investigation, and Will Dean’s debut novel contains nothing less than the recipe for success, a dark, compelling thriller and a satisfying puzzle that will keep the reader guessing until the final page.
The novel is related in the first person by Tuva, and this allows Dean to examine what sets her apart from her contemporaries: Tuva is deaf. She can hear with the assistance of hearing aids, but when they’re switched off, her world is completely silent. It’s a fascinating examination of the disability, and plays as important a part in drawing the reader into the narrative as does the mystery at the novel’s heart. Tuva is brash and foul-mouthed, and it doesn’t take long to understand that part of this is a defence mechanism, a way to avoid being pitied for her disability. “You speak so well” more than one character informs her, and Tuva does her best not to be insulted by this well-meaning platitude, though her anger is palpable, her desire to strike out – verbally or physically – so intense that the reader almost feels it on her behalf.
While the murder occurs outside the town boundaries, the nearby village of Mossen is part of the wider Gavrik Kommun, and Tuva – an outsider – quickly discovers how tight-lipped this small community can be, and how clear the divisions between the different cliques that make up the community. From the odd wood-carving sisters, to the creepy taxi driver, and the ghostwriter who is cooking a complete lamb’s head when Tuva first encounters him, to the local retailers, the police and the hunting group led by Hannes Carlsson, the husband of Tuva’s new friend: there are relationships here that are decades in the making, invisible bonds that are known and respected within the community, but are almost impenetrable to an outsider like Tuva. At its heart, Dark Pines is a novel about identity and belonging, about being an outsider, and about how rare it is for that outsider to be accepted into such a tight-knit community – as evidenced by Tuva’s friend Tammy, a second-generation Asian woman whose mother was never accepted in the town, and who, herself, is only tolerated because her take-away van is a convenience to the locals. Dean also examines the changing nature of small towns: many of the small local businesses no longer exist, large corporations such as McDonald’s and ICA moving in and putting the smaller locals out of business.
The murder, and its relationship to the series of murders twenty years earlier, provides the perfect platform for Dean to begin ratcheting up the tension almost from the get-go. What helps to define Dark Pines, and sets it apart from every other Scandicrime novel you’ve read, is the sense of place that is invested in the story’s bones. From the moment Tuva first encounters Utgard forest, we get a sense of just how vast this tract of land is. Despite its enormity, the close-packed trees instil in it a sense of claustrophobia that is helped by the freezing temperatures and early onset of darkness. Throw in Tuva’s deafness, and our constant awareness of the fragility of her connection with the world of sound – if her aids get wet, they’re likely to malfunction – and reading Dark Pines quickly becomes a breath-taking and pulse-pounding experience. Dean clearly has experience of the Swedish wilderness in which he has set his story and, if not deaf himself, has certainly gained a good enough understanding to plunge the reader into Tuva’s mostly-silent world.
Dark Pines is nothing short of perfection. Engaging all of the reader’s senses (you’ll feel the cold and smell the pine forest around you), it’s a cleverly-constructed mystery with a cast of memorable (though not always for the right reasons!) characters, not least of which is the story’s protagonist, Tuva Moodyson. Will Dean brings a fresh new voice, a writer with a broad understanding of how to manipulate the reader to his own ends and how to bring the world he has created to stark, immersive life around the reader. This isn’t the last we’ll hear from Dean, and I’m hoping it won’t be the last we’ll hear from Tuva Moodyson either. You’ll go a long way to find a more engaging, entertaining and intense piece of crime fiction this year, so grab a blanket and give yourself over to the care of the talented Mr Dean.