Books: The ice queen
Fiction: The Second Deadly Sin Asa Larsson Macklehose Press, £18.99, 395 pages
A wounded bear is pursued through the forest wilderness of northern Sweden. When finally cornered and shot by an expert marksman, its stomach contents are found to include human remains. Some months later, in a village in the same area, a woman is murdered in a frenzied attack, her young grandson missing. This is the tense and gripping opening of Asa Larsson's novel, which won the 2012 Best Swedish Crime Novel award.
Scandinavian crime fiction has become immensely popular internationally over the past two decades, spearheaded by the cerebral Wallender books of Henning Mankell and the gritty Norwegian novels of Jo Nesbo, before the mega-success of Stieg Larsson's "Dragon Tattoo" trilogy, which first appeared in 2005. Yet these are only the first among many equals of what has become a formidable genre of writing and which has now spread to the small screen via quality TV dramas, including, in addition to Wallender, The Killing and The Bridge.
Both sexes are well represented. Sweden alone has produced a number of first-rate female crime writers including, in addition to Asa Larsson, Camilla Lackberg, Kerstin Ekman, Inger Frimansson, and Lisa Marklund. Norway can point to Karin Fossum and Anne Holt, Finland to Sofi Oxanen, Iceland to Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Denmark to Agnete Friis and Lena Kaaberbol. All well worth reading.
Various theories have been advanced to explain this popularity. Mankell suggested recently that it was in part because the outside world had put Scandinavian society on a pedestal because of its affluence, its comprehensive welfare systems and its progressive and liberal views and was fascinated therefore at novels and incidents that revealed a seamier side of this society. Others have pointed to the stark contrast the books present between the pristine and clean environment and the tawdry nature of the crimes, many with sexual, religious or racial undertones.
Asa Larsson, the "Other Larsson", as she wryly comments in an extensive and revealing interview on YouTube, suggests that it was rejection in the 1970s of the classical Anglo-Saxon stereotype of the middle-class, affluent detective portrayed by Agatha Christie, among others, that led to the emergence of uniquely Swedish detective writing, very much tied to real life and this has been well received everywhere. Some writers, her namesake being one, have also clearly had a political agenda to expose various aspects of right-wing extremism, the behaviour of big business and misogyny.
Her own writing is distinctive. The Second Deadly Sin is her fifth novel featuring prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson, all based in or around Kiruna, the most northerly city in Sweden, where she grew up.
Her first novel, The Savage Altar, won best debut prize, while the sequel, The Blood Spilt, won Best Swedish Crime Novel in 2004, before any of Stieg's books had appeared. Another Martinsson novel is planned, after which she will move on (she is in her late 40s). Judging by this one it would be a pity to let the series lapse.
The series setting is fascinating. Kiruna, population 20,000, lies in Norrbotten County, within the Arctic Circle close to where the borders of Sweden, Norway and Finland come together. Norrbotten is bigger than the island of Ireland but has only 250,000 inhabitants. (Sweden itself is six times larger than Ireland, with a population of 9,500,000).
Finnish and Sami are as widely spoken as Swedish and the populace have retained their own customs and culture. The area is rich in natural resources, with Kiruna famous for its iron ore. There is some local resentment at what is perceived as economic exploitation by the south, particularly Stockholm.
Martinsson, like her creator originally a successful tax attorney, has returned to her roots from Stockholm, leaving her mystified partner behind, and has acquired a reputation for lateral thinking sometimes at odds with the locals. In this novel she is the first to sense a connection between the recent murder and the remains devoured by the bear. She gradually unravels a complex plot with at its centre a formidable and painstaking serial killer.
She also uncovers a link to a love story and a murder of a century before, the historical episodes treated with just the correct level of pathos. The pace and the tension increase to a dramatic climax.
The writing is of the highest quality. The confrontations with the bear are electrifying. Later there is a sympathetic and credible treatment of a traumatised child. The other characters, including the several tragic figures, are also well drawn, the overall effect being to create a lasting and believable scenario long after finishing the book. Her descriptions of the dogs and their interaction with her humans is especially memorable. A worthy winner of the award and eminently suitable for a film or a TV series.
Asa Larsson has no need of horrendous detail, or ritual killings, nor indeed of a single tattoo. She is simply a very good writer. There is no doubt in my mind who is "the other Larsson".
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