I am delighted to be a book reviewer for that very informative and fun website Crime Fiction Lover, not least because it helps me to be more focused and thoughtful about my reading. I do tend to read a lot of crime fiction anyway, but sometimes it is just swallowed down whole, undigested. I have even have been known to read the same book twice (having forgotten it) and only realised halfway through that I know who the killer is!
For Crime Fiction Lover, I am the ‘exotic settings’ specialist, which fits in well with my peripatetic (not pathetic!) existence, and also exposes me to authors who are perhaps less well-known in the English-speaking world. At the moment, there seems to be an endless appetite for all things Scandinavian. I recently reviewed a new (to the English audience) Swedish writer Anna Jansson for the website. You can read the full review here, but on this blog I want to compare her work with that of another Swedish author who uses the same location.
Welcome to the pretty medieval town of Visby on the island of Gotland, just off the coast of Sweden in the Baltic Sea. Full-time population: 20,000. Number of summer visitors: 800,000. The perfect place to celebrate Swedish Midsummer, let down your hair and get away from it all. Or the perfect place to commit a murder and get away with it?
This year, it’s not just one, but two Swedish thriller writers who introduce us to this ostensibly idyllic world, making Gotland the backdrop of their crime series. Both of them are well-known in Scandinavia, and both series have been adapted for Swedish and German television, but they are only just beginning to find an audience in the English-speaking world, thanks to the translations now available from Stockholm Text. However, neither of the two books are the first in the series (Jansson has written 13 so far and Jungstedt 9) , so there may be some character developments and allusions that I am missing out on. However, that shouldn’t impact on your enjoyment and understanding of the stories.
‘Killer’s Island’ introduces the feisty detective Maria Wern, who, on her way home from an evening out with her best friend, intervenes to rescue a young boy who is being beaten up by a gang. In return for her efforts, she herself is beaten and stabbed with a syringe filled with blood, thus spending much of the rest of the book worrying about whether or not she has been contaminated with the AIDS virus. The same gang also assaults a tired, insomniac nurse, Linn Bogren, who is facing personal and professional turmoil of her own. Linn is saved on this occasion by the timely intervention of her neighbour Harry, but not long after she is found dead, bloodless, dressed in white, with a bridal bouquet of lilies of the valley in her hand. Someone is trying to draw their attention to the myth of the White Lady of the Sea, who lures men to their doom in the dark undercurrents surrounding the island.
Maria and her colleagues at Visby Police Station, including her rather suicidal boyfriend Per and afore-mentioned best friend and forensic scientist Erika, are confronted with further attacks and murders, providing an increasingly complex case. The only link between these apparently unrelated crimes seems to be Erika’s new lover, Dr. Anders Ahlstrӧm. But how can such a compassionate man, who always finds time to listen to his patients and is such a loving single Dad to his 11-year-old daughter, be involved in such a sordid series of murders? And what is the connection between a hypochondriac, sleepwalking and a jealous daughter?
It becomes a race against time, as it becomes clear that the detectives themselves are also being closely observed by a highly intelligent and manipulative killer, able to taunt and provoke the police through superior computing skills.
Meanwhile, in ‘The Dead of Summer’, Visby’s finest sleuthing team consists of DS Anders Knutas (reasonably happily married), his glamorous sidekick Karin Jacobsson and the rather interfering journalist Johan Berg. They are investigating an execution-type murder on the beach just outside a campsite. The victim, Peter Bovide, was a happily married co-owner of a successful construction company. At first, the police suspect he and his partner may have been using illegal Estonian labour. The murder weapon, however, is unusual: an 80 year old Russian pistol, so suspicion turns to vodka smugglers aboard Russian coal ships. At the same time, flashbacks to 1985 suggest an alternative storyline, with a German family coming to explore the wildlife off the coast of Sweden. I found these flashbacks a little too intrusive and heavy-handed, providing clues that gave away the ending rather early on. I also found Johan’s on-and-off relationship with the drippy Emma a little wearisome, without adding much value to the story. Perhaps if you read these books in order (the four previous ones in the series are available in English), you might care more about their future together.
I couldn’t help comparing the two books while reading them, and not just because of the location. Both are police procedurals at heart, albeit with an extensive focus on the private lives of the members of the investigating team. Both are stylistically quite similar, with short scenes, moving quite rapidly from one viewpoint to the next, the pace quickening all the while to a dramatic climax. Anna Jansson is a practising nurse as well as a writer, so unsurprisingly both characters and clues are closely linked to the medical profession. Mari Jungstedt is a former journalist, so there are lots of realistic details about both local and national TV stations and reporters.
Of the two, I would say that Jungstedt makes better use of the atmospheric island setting, the isolation, the lovely long stretches of beach, while Jansson offers more rounded characters, a less predictable storyline and a more confident narrative voice. Both are less bleak than some of the typical Scandinavian fare, so perhaps a good alternative for those who prefer their crimes less graphic and their detectives less moody. Both are enjoyable fast-paced narratives to while away an evening or two. The next Henning Mankell or Stieg Larsson? I think not. Which, given how I feel about Stieg Larsson’s literary abilities, is perhaps not such a bad thing. I look forward to seeing how these series evolve.