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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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STALLO by Stefan Spjut

Stallo STALLO

Stefan Spjut

Translated by Susan Beard

Faber & Faber (www.faber.co.uk)

£14.99

In the summer of 1978 young Marcus Brodin disappears from the cabin he is sharing with his mother in the remote woods of central Sweden. His mother claims he was taken by a giant, but her reliance on prescription drugs makes her an unreliable witness. A decade later, wildlife photographer Gunnar Myrén takes a photograph of a bear from his small aircraft; there is a small creature riding on the bear’s back. Gunnar is convinced that this creature is a troll. In 2004 Gunnar’s granddaughter Susso runs a website dedicated to proving the existence of so-called mythical creatures. When she is contacted by an old woman who claims that a tiny man has been watching her house, Susso finds herself coming face-to-face with irrevocable evidence that her grandfather was right, that trolls exist in the Swedish hinterlands. Now she must use her knowledge to find young Mattias Mickelsson before he suffers the same fate that Marcus Brodin suffered over twenty-five years earlier.

John_Bauer_1915Trolls are a part of the global consciousness, mythical creatures that we’ve all heard of, and whose physical aspect, whether we know it or not, has been shaped by the work of the likes of Rolf Lidberg and John Bauer (right). Tapping into a wealth of Swedish folklore, Stefan Spjut has built a fascinating – if frightening – story around a credible and engaging premise. The strength of Stallo lies in the characters with which the novel is populated, from Susso and her mother, to Seved and Börje who act as keepers for the giant creatures of the novel’s title: stallo are mythical shape-shifting creatures from the far northern depths of Sweden. From the outset, we’re invested in the lives of these people, and it is as much our need to know who they are and what will become of them that propels us through the story as it is the relatively straightforward plot itself.

In the tradition of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let The Right One In, of which Stallo is very reminiscent – even beyond the Swedish setting, there is something about the novel’s language and pace that will remind readers of that earlier novel – this is horror of the most quiet variety. There is little in the way of violence, and with the exception of one or two key scenes, much of the tension and sense of horror is built through suggestion as Spjut slowly reveals what these creatures are and what they want.

Spjut has pulled a very clever move in not making the trolls the true villains of the piece, but rather their human keepers. Much of the violence is perpetrated at Lennart’s command and while the stallo are certainly a frightening prospect, they play a decidedly passive role in the proceedings. The reader comes away with a sense that, in their own way, they are good and reasonable beings who have fallen under the care of people who epitomise the darker side of the human condition.

The novel’s setting will be familiar to many readers of the recent Scandi-crime wave. Set mainly in the northern city of Kiruna (which will be familiar to readers of the novels of Åsa Larsson), the action moves across much of the country, taking in the area around Lake Vättern in the south, as well as the country’s capital, Stockholm. The central characters are constantly on the move, and this allows Spjut not only to show off some of the highlights of his beautiful country, but also how the mythology of trolls differs from one end of the country to the other.

As the wave of Scandi-crime reaches its peak, it seems that Scandi-horror might be the next big thing in the world of genre literature (I have already been asked to look at a Swedish anthology of horror stories by some of the country’s biggest names in the genre, which I hope to review here soon). Very different from the type of horror we’re used to seeing here in the UK and in the US, Stallo is most definitely in the same vein as Let The Right One In. This is literary horror, designed to make the reader stop of wonder “what if…?”, to sow the seeds of discomfort and unease that grow over time, rather than to hit the reader with a short, sharp fright that they will laugh off and forget by the end of the chapter. Most interesting, perhaps, is the choice of creature, something that we see very rarely (the last I can remember is the 2010 Norwegian film, Trollhunter), which helps to make the story feel fresh and interesting, rather than another rehash of a tired old trope. Not that Spjut needs much help on that score: his characters are pitch perfect, his slowly unfolding plot engaging and surprising, and his use of language – ably translated into English by Susan Beard – sublime and beautiful.

Stallo is not Stefan Spjut’s first novel, but it is his first in the horror genre. Following in the successful footsteps of John Ajvide Lindqvist, Spjut presents a story – not to mention a central conceit – that is pure Sweden, but which is given a global appeal through a choice of monster that has haunted the dreams of every child at some point in their lives (‘Who is that trip-trapping over my bridge?’). Beautifully written, this is quiet horror at its finest. Destined to be forever compared to Lindqvist’s vampire classic, Stallo stands well enough in its own right to show that the burgeoning Swedish horror scene is more than a one-trick pony, and fills this reader with joy at the prospect of what is still to come. Stefan Spjut is a name to remember; I expect we’ll be hearing plenty from him in the coming years. Stallo is a must-read for anyone who considers themselves a fan of horror fiction, and should prove an interesting alternative for those growing tired of the endless parade of Swedish detectives that seem to be taking over the shelves of our local bookshops.

THE BLACK PATH by Åsa Larsson

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.

EASY MONEY by Jens Lapidus

EASY MONEY - Jens Lapidus EASY MONEY

Jens Lapidus

Translated by Astri von Arbin Ahlander

Macmillan (www.panmacmillan.com)

£12.99

Released: 2nd February 2012

When Jens Lapidus’ debut novel, Easy Money, landed on my desk, it came bearing a quote that is almost inevitable these days on the English translations of Swedish novels – the quote that compares this writer to Stieg Larsson. What caught my eye about this quote, though, is the fact that it came from none other than the Demon dog of American crime fiction, and one of my personal favourites, James Ellroy.

Easy Money – originally published in Sweden in 2006 – takes an in-depth look at Stockholm’s underworld through the eyes of three men for whom that shady empire is home. Jorge is Chilean, and is doing time for possession of cocaine with intent to sell. When Jorge pulls off the impossible – hops over the twenty-three-foot wall that surrounds Österåker prison – he disappears into a world where his knowledge of the cocaine business can make him king. He just has to stay free, and stay alive, for long enough to put that knowledge to good use.

JW is a wannabe – a country boy living it large in the big city, hiding his background in order to fit in with the rich set who sleep all day and party all night in Stockholm’s most fashionable area. He drives a gypsy cab on the nights he isnt partying to afford the parties and soon graduates to dealing cocaine when his boss sees potential in him. JW has ulterior motives for being in the city – several years earlier, his older sister followed the same course and disappeared without a trace. JW hopes to achieve what the police could not, and find what happened to her.

Mrado is a member of the Yugo Mafia. He’s a big man who lives on a diet of protein bars and steroids. He’s a racketeer, running a large chunk of the city’s coat-check business. Mrado, a Serbian who fought at Srebrenica, fears no man, but he has a weak spot – a daughter that he sees one day every other week, and even that under protest by his ex-wife. As the lives of these three men converge, moving towards the largest cocaine shipment Stockholm has ever seen, violence erupts, and they find that they may have more in common with each other than it would seem at first glance.

Lapidus presents us with a realistic vision of what Stockholm’s underworld might look like – the various factions battling for a piece of this or that business in a city barely big enough to hold them all. He does this through alternating chapters told from the point of view of each of the three protagonists. It’s a complex world, and the interrelationships between these men – never fully revealed to them, but revealed piecemeal to the reader – is equally complex, and Lapidus uses small, exciting chunks to build a story that is, for the reader at least, much more than the sum of its parts. The comparisons with Larsson are undeniable and, in my opinion, well-founded: this is a side of Sweden that most Swedes probably don’t know exists, a side that the Swedish tourist authorities would much rather wasn’t advertised; it portrays Stockholm as a dark and violent city peopled by rich brats, and gangsters and wannabes. Like the journalist Larsson, Lapidus is well-placed to provide a realistic look at this world– he’s a criminal defence lawyer who, according to his bio, represents some of the most notorious criminals in Sweden.

The novel reads like a tribute to Ellroy. The subject bears a close resemblance to some of the myriad plots that drive his Underworld USA trilogy, but most striking is Lapidus’ telegraphic, rhythmic writing style. The short, sharp prose that defines most of Ellroy’s work is beautifully reproduced here, despite the translation from Swedish to English.

Jorge knew how it was: Friends on the inside are not like friends on the outside. Other rules apply. Power hierarchies are clearer. Time inside counts. Number of times inside counts. Smokes count; roaches count more. Favors grant relationships. Your crime counts: rapists and pedophiles worth zero. Junkies and alkies way down. Assault and theft higher. Armed robbery and drug kingpins on top. Most of all: Your membership counts. Rolando, a friend according to the rules on the outside. According to the principles of the slammer: Playa batted in the major leagues, Jorge in the minor.

It’s impressive to read, and respect to both author and translator for pulling it off. The fashion-obsessed JW, his chapters littered with brand names, and club names, comes across as a cut-price Patrick Bateman: all of the ego, and none of the psychopathic tendencies. It’s difficult to know, though, if this mimicry of Bret Easton Ellis’ most enduring creation is deliberate or not.

Lapidus infuses the novel with a deep sense of place, and the story is littered with street names and place names. There’s an implicit trust that the author won’t mess around too much with the city’s geography, but it serves to ground the action in real places that can be found on a map, and to make the reader feel like they know at least a small part of the city. If you’re like me, it also serves as a tourist guide and makes the reader long to (re)visit.

Easy Money is an assured and brilliant debut – I’ll admit I was surprised that it was, indeed, Lapidus’ first novel, and not just the first to appear in English translation, as sometimes happens. It’s not difficult to see why it’s the fastest-selling Swedish crime novel in a decade, and why it’s already a very successful film (one, it saddens me to say, that has already been lined up for an American remake). It ticks all the boxes I look for in a good crime thriller: action-packed, gritty, dark, violent, funny and, above all, realistic. It introduces three unforgettable characters who you will love and hate in equal measure as the story progresses. The good news is that it’s also the first book in a trilogy (books two and three of which have already been published in Sweden, so with luck we won’t have to wait too long to get our hands on them). It’s worth mentioning again that credit is due to the translator – this is her first novel translation, which is something of a feat – who has taken a very difficult style and made it work beautifully. If you’re a fan of James Ellroy or Don Winslow, you can’t miss this. Jens Lapidus is definitely one to watch.

UNTIL THY WRATH BE PAST by Åsa Larsson

UNTIL THY WRATH BE PAST

Åsa Larsson

Translated by Laurie Thompson

MacLehose Press (www.maclehosepress.com)

£12.99

Released: 4th August 2011

 

In the early spring thaw, the body of a young woman is discovered floating in the river Torne, in the northern extremes of Sweden. It doesn’t take long for police to discover that it’s the body of Wilma Persson, who went missing along with her boyfriend during the depths of winter late the previous year. Unable to accept the obvious explanation – that the couple died accidentally while diving – District Prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson and Police Inspector Anna-Maria Mella ruffle feathers in an attempt to get to the truth and bring the couple’s murderer to justice.

Until Thy Wrath Be Past – the title comes from a quotation from the Book of Job – is Larsson’s third novel featuring the troubled Prosecutor who is adjusting to life above the Arctic Circle in the Swedish city of Kiruna. It’s a straightforward police procedural where the identity of Wilma Persson’s murderer is never in question, not least to the investigators at the centre of the novel. Even so, it is oddly gripping, driven to a large extent by the why rather than the who or the how of many traditional crime novels.

Martinsson and Mella – presumably there is a reason the latter is not included in the series title – are a pair of down-to-earth women. Martinsson is readjusting to life in the quiet city of Kiruna after time spent living and working in Stockholm. She’s recently been released from a psychiatric hospital following a breakdown brought on by one of her previous cases and trying – with varying degrees of success – to get back to a normal way of life. Mella is the tough-as-nails, break-all-the-rules detective with a stable family life – a loving husband and four children keep her busy out of hours. The biggest problem with taking Wrath as your starting point for this series – as I have done – is that you miss a lot of the interpersonal dynamics. This is a standalone case which is completely self-contained within the covers of the book, at least in terms of the main plot. But there is two books’ worth of history here that define these people and how they interact with one another. It would be impossible to write the novel without some reference to what has gone before, but it can be frustrating for the first-time visitor to this part of the world. I’d recommend considering The Savage Altar as a starting point and working your way forward.

Around half of the novel is told from the point of view of the victim. The opening chapter describes the dive and the drowning and is expertly written: told in the first person, it will leave you short of breath and eager for more. Wilma appears to Martinsson early in the novel to provide assistance – an act which Martinsson remembers as a dream. There is a touch of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones in the handling of Wilma’s story and a kinship with John Connolly’s Charlie Parker novels – this is a human drama that straddles the line between crime and supernatural “horror”.

There is something distinctly Swedish – unpronounceable names, of which there are many, aside – about how Larsson tells her story, something laid-back about her prose that reminds me of the first time I read Henning Mankell, which would be the best comparison I could come up with should someone ask the question “who is she like?” While Larsson’s Kiruna and Mankell’s Ystad could not be farther apart and still be in the same country – Ystad sits serenely on the south coast while Kiruna rests in the triangle where the borders of Sweden, Finland and Norway meet – they could not be more similar: there’s something positively rural about both places, and much of the police work seems to take place outside of the city proper while still falling under the purview of the city’s police force. Larsson’s sense of place is well-defined, and Kiruna and its surroundings come alive within the pages of the book.

In the ever-growing pantheon of Scandinavian crime fiction, it is sometimes difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. Based on Until Thy Wrath Be Past, Åsa Larsson is definitely worth your time and attention. I suspect that as the series grows, so will this writer’s reputation until it’s Åsa that people think about when they hear the name Larsson. This is an absolute must-read for fans of the Wallander novels in particular and anyone who enjoys Scandi-crime in general.

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