Europa Blues by Arne Dahl

25793827Europa Blues, by Arne Dahl, was a really different kind of crime book, even in the genre I am so enjoying, the broadly termed “Nordic Noir.” Not realising this was book four in a ten book series, I picked it up, seduced by the synopsis on the back of the book which explains that his novel is about a series of crimes involving the grisly death of a Greek gangster, disappearing Eastern European prostitutes and the macabre murder of a famous Jewish professor. From the start, it was pretty clear to me that the police involved in the investigations had complex lives and histories to which I was only partly privy and which no doubt earlier books explored. But (and this is testimony to the strength of Dahl’s writing), at no point did I feel this disadvantaged me. Such was the power of the prose and the way the principal characters were presented and their back-stories hinted at, I felt I knew them and any gaps and omissions were filled. Better still, I cared about these people deeply.

With three investigations on the go and one man down (he’s on extended leave in Italy), the A-unit, or National Crime Investigation Department’s Special Unit for Violent Crimes of an International Nature (what a mouthful!), is busy, especially when, after a street thug is brutally murdered by a woman in a train station, they begin to suspect that all the murders are linked. When they seek help from Interpol and Europol, their suspicions are confirmed. But it’s when they ask one of their own, the man in Italy, to do some investigating there, that the connections reveal themselves. What’s exposed goes back decades and into one of the most violent and cruel periods of human history. Not one to shy away from both the individual’s or country’s role in human suffering and genocide, through is characters, Dahl is highly critical of Sweden’s “neutrality” or ability to look the other way. Exploring huge issues such as complicity and national shame, Dahl uses history to also critique the present in an intelligent and searing manner.

The final twists and turns are both shocking and gratifying.

The way characters are developed; the use of literature and history and the sense of social and personal justice that pervades this book is so strong. I was drawn into the story and the relationships – professional and personal. The writing is sublime and always powerful – though humour, particularly between those who have worked together and known each other so long – relieves some of the bleaker moments: gallows’ humour indeed.

A magnificent book that makes me long to lose myself in another in the series.

4.5 stars.


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The Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin

25436079The final book in the Oland Quartet, The Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin, is quite different to the other three, but no less impressive. While it doesn’t quite have the haunting, almost dream-like and supernatural quality of the other three (mainly because the majority of the tale is set mostly in the present), it does have a sense of suspense and impending peril, almost from the very first page.

Like the other three books, certain familiar characters are present, Gerlof Davidsson, the elderly grandfather who has appeared in all books, plays a major role, not just as a touchstone for the residents of the island and the history that he’s borne witness too, but also for the younger generations who either live or holiday upon the isle. One of the newcomers is a boy, Jonas Kloss, nephew of the owner of a big and profitable resort on the island that is filled to the brim with tourists each summer – this one being no exception.

Arriving with his ex-con father and older brother, Jonas is given tasks to perform but also plenty of free time. When his older brother and cousins abandon him one night, Jonas sets out on a midnight ride in an inflatable boat, drifting with the tide, dreaming of what might be. When he is almost sunk by a ship that emerges out of the dark and his forced to clamber aboard, he bears witness to something that absolutely terrifies him. Fleeing, he dives off the ship, risking death by drowning rather than remaining onboard. He arrives on shore, wet, shaken, only to be found by Gerlof who provides him succour, listening to the boy’s tale of zombies and murderers with a healthy dose of cynicism.

But if there’s one thing readers of this series understand about Gerlof it’s that he has an open mind and heart and is slow to dismiss even the incredible. When other strange things begin to happen on the island and other people connected to the Klosses are either murdered or disappear, Gerlof understands something greater is afoot, something that has its roots in Oland’s past. If there’s something Gerlof excels at, it’s linking the present with the past and so begins another investigation into Oland’s inhabitants, its history and the reason behind one man’s dreadful and long awaited revenge…

Beautifully paced and written, this is a terrific conclusion to a fabulous series that draws on familiar characters while introducing us to some new ones as well. The landscape of the island and, indeed, of Sweden itself and the other lands invoked by this tale become as much a character as the wonderfully crafted people. This book was so hard to put down, yet I didn’t want to finish it either.

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The Quarry by Johan Theorin

11479983The third book in The Oland Quartet, The Quarry by Johan Theorin, follows the same sort of pattern established in the first two. While we have some of the same characters reappearing (the Davidsson family, in particular, Gertlof is the anchor or common thread that loosely links these marvellous tales), each novel centres on newcomers or new characters to the island and a mystery and/or tragedy surrounding them.

In this book, the newcomers are the Morner family: Pers and his two children. Pers inherited a cottage by the quarry from a character who played a minor role in the first book and briefly appeared in the second, Ernst, who made unusual and sought-after sculptures from the rock hewn from the quarry, and was a good friend of elderly resident, Gertlof.

Arriving to celebrate Easter, divorced Pers is looking forward to some time with his children, teenage twins, only his daughter is sick with an undiagnosed but debilitating illness and is placed suddenly in hospital, while his son seems more interested in his Gameboy than spending time with either his father or ailing sister. When an urgent call comes through from Pers’ estranged father, Jerry, who recently had a stroke and finds it difficult to communicate, Pers is forced to leave the island and go to his aid. When he arrives to pick him up in his office in the woods, what he finds is destruction and death.

Returning to Oland, Pers begins to realise that whoever is targeting his father is after anyone associated with his infamous parent’s former business and that he must look to the past to discover who it is that’s out for revenge before it’s too late…

In the meantime, his daughter’s disease and prognosis worsens, he meets the other residents old and new who also have houses around the quarry and their own secrets and histories – some of whom will impact upon him and his family as well.

Segueing again between past and present in order to create a slow reveal of the truth, Theorin masterfully controls the narrative. I love the way he blends local myth into the story and the childhood need and desire to believe in the fantastical – and for a whole variety of reasons. I also enjoy how he spares us that sometimes painful adult awakening to reality – well, he doesn’t spare us so much as gently let his characters and thus, the reader, down.

Beautifully written, the island and its distinct seasons, the characters that populate it, and the history that’s leeched into its alvar, sands and now quarry, come alive in this spell-binding book.

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Leona: The Die is Cast by Jenny Rogneby

Having been sent Leona: The Die is Cast from first time novelist, Jenny Rogneby, by the publisher (thank you), I was really looking forward to sinking my teeth into a Nordic crime noir as I’m a huge fan of the fictive work coming from the north. Announced as Sweden’s Number 1 bestseller, and with a blurb set to make your blood race, I began reading.

imgres-2There’s no doubt this book is original in terms of its central crime, the “criminals” perpetrating it and in the main protagonist, Leona Lindberg a detective with a formidable reputation based in Stockholm’s Violent Crimes Division.

When a blood-covered little girl walks into a crowded bank clutching a teddy bear and plays a voice-recording demanding money, warning any who try to approach the child to stay away or else, the public imagination and collective horror of the police force, media and citizens is aroused.

The case is handed to Leona but, before she can make headway, a second robbery courtesy of the same little girl takes place. Hounded by her boss who keeps foisting extra and inexperienced staff upon her, Leona is alternately frustrated and wanting to taunt her difficult manager. If she’s just left alone, she knows she can solve this case. It doesn’t help that her home life is in a shambles, she has a gambling addiction that keeps her awake most nights and her son is seriously ill. Socially awkward and feeling trapped, Leona is desperate to solve the crime and sort out her personal life, but with the eyes of her colleagues and the media watching her every move, including a persistent journalist, it appears this strong woman might unravel before anything is resolved.

This is a well-written and mostly tautly paced novel that has the most unpleasant “hero” I have yet had the misfortune to encounter. There is little to like about Leona Lindberg. At first, I thought she was going to be like Saga from the marvellous series The Bridge. But whereas Saga has redeeming qualities (including her affable partner, Martin), and especially strong ethics, Leona doesn’t even possess these. She lies, she’s incredibly selfish, she’s disloyal and they’re her good points.

But it’s these very qualities and the fact the central protagonist is such a loathsome creature in so many ways that make this book quite compelling. You keep reading because you want to see her either get her comeuppance or compensate for the dreadful and narcissistic choices she makes.

While I didn’t feel an iota of sympathy for Leona (but did for anyone who had anything to do with her) and, frankly, rushed through a couple of sections in the novel because I simply didn’t care, I also wanted to know what was going to happen. So kudos to Rogneby for managing to construct a story that, despite its main character, still has you wanting to keep reading.

There’s no doubt, Leona is a juggler who has to work hard to keep all the balls she keeps throwing up in the air – and Rogneby even harder. I wasn’t entirely convinced by what started out as a resolution to Leona’s case but when it quickly segued into the opening for another instalment in what’s going to be a series, I saw where Rogneby is going and hats off to her.

I think I have to recover from this novel before I decide if I continue to follow Leona’s (mis)adventures. I know I needed a hot shower after this one and that was because for a cop, this woman makes the reader feel dirty – and not in any sexual kind of way, but in a grubby horrid one. Another reason why the tale is so unique.

Recommended for anyone who wants an original take on a strong genre with a woman unlike any other in the lead.

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