The Stockholm City Lights Were Slowly Starting to Rise*

This week’s post is devoted to a location rather than a specific book or author. Writer and crime fiction blogger Margot Kinberg highlights a city that has become as familiar to those fans of the genre who like to read translated crime fiction as New York or LA are to fans of the American form of the genre. Even those who’ve never visited.

I haven’t (yet) visited Stockholm, although I’m told (and have seen in ‘photos) that it’s a beautiful city. It’s the largest city on the Scandinavian Peninsula and it’s connected in many ways with the rest of Europe and beyond. What’s more, Stockholm is one of Sweden’s major cultural and economic hubs, not to mention its capital. So it’s not surprising that a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction takes place there. Maxine Clarke was an expert on Scandinavian crime fiction and taught me much about it, so in her memory, let’s take a look at some of the novels and series that take place in Stockholm.

The Harper Perennial editions of the series released from 2006 make a great looking set and each has an introduction from a leading contemporary crime writer.

One of the classic police procedural series (and one which I think should be on the reading list of any crime fiction fan, to be honest) is Maj Sjøwall and Per Wahløø’s Martin Beck series, which takes place largely in Stockholm. The ten novels that comprise this series follow Martin Beck and his fellow investigators through several changes in their own lives. They also examine critically Swedish social, economic and cultural life. In Murder at the Savoy for instance, there’s a hard look at the Swedish class system of the day and at the business and political elites who perpetuated it. In THE ABOMINABLE MAN, Martin Beck and his team investigate the murder of a fellow cop, and we get a look at the Swedish police system and the abuses within it. And in THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN and THE TERRORISTS, we get a look at Stockholm’s relationship with other nations, among other things. Since this is a police procedural series, we also see a lot of the city of Stockholm as Martin Beck and his team interview people, follow up leads and the like. What’s interesting about this series too (at least in my opinion) is its timelessness. Yes, fashions have changed, the Vietnam War protests are over and the like. But the larger questions addressed in this series are still important questions today.

TheBomberMarklundLiza Marklund’s series featuring journalist Annika Bengtzon also takes place mostly in Stockholm. Through Bengtzon’s eyes, we get to see several facets of life in that city. For instance, the main action in THE BOMBER begins when an at-first-unidentified woman is killed during a bomb blast at the newly-constructed Olympic Village. While the story doesn’t focus on the Olympic Games themselves, it does reflect the fact that Stockholm has twice been the host city for the Olympics. And in STUDIO SEX (aka STUDIO 69), Marklund explores the ‘backroom’ deals that go on among powerful politicians and businesspeople. In this case, the discovery of Hanna Josefin Liljeberg’s body in Kronoberg Park leads Bengtzon to Stockholm’s sex clubs and underworld meeting places. It also leads her to some possible government cover-ups and ‘dirty deals.’ As Bengtzon goes about gathering information for her stories, we also get to see what living in Stockholm is like.

Stefan Tegenfalk’s Walter Gröhn/Joanna de Brugge trilogy (ANGER MODE, PROJECT NIRVANA, THE MISSING LINK) is also based in Stockholm. Stockholm County CID Inspector Walter Gröhn and CID trainee Jonna de Brugge are drawn into a series of bizarre murders and later, a hostage situation. The complicated case leads both of them into a web of international intrigue, computer crime and larger questions about the limits of science. A lot of people see this trilogy more as a set of thrillers than more typical crime fiction, and some even call them ‘techno-thrillers.’ Either way, they show among other things how international a city Stockholm has become.

TheSavageAltarLarssonSeveral of Åsa Larsson’s novels featuring attorney Rebecca Martinsson take place in northern Sweden. However, the series starts in Stockholm, where Martinsson works for a large law firm. In THE SAVAGE ALTAR (aka SUN STORM) she returns to her home in Kiruna to help a friend who’s been accused of murder. Although she more or less remains in that area, she still has strong ties to Stockholm. For instance, her on again/off again lover Måns Wenngren lives there and wants her to move back. She also stays in contact with her good friend Maria Taube, who works for the same Stockholm law firm. One of the interesting things that we see in this series is the way Stockholm is perceived in other parts of Sweden. For example, at the beginning of the series, Martinsson dresses in a very particular, professional kind of way, with stylish clothes, coat and boots. That’s how she fits in to the environment. But that way of dressing is perceived as too ‘slick’ – too ‘Stockholm’ – in Norrland, where she’s from and to which she returns. So little by little, Martinsson adapts her ‘Stockholm’ ways and wardrobe to local expectations. It’s an interesting reflection of the way the other parts of Sweden and Stockholm view each other.

SomeKindOfPeaceGrebeAnd then there’s Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s series featuring Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. In her first outing, SOME KIND OF PEACE, Bergman becomes the target of what seems like a stalker determined to ruin her reputation and her practice – and worse. When the body of one of her clients is found on her property, she also gets drawn into a murder investigation. In MORE BITTER THAN DEATH, Bergman and her friend and business partner Aina Davidson agree to host a weekly group session for women who’ve survived domestic abuse. This leads Bergman into a high-profile case of murder when Susanne Olsson is murdered, and the boyfriend of one of the group’s members becomes the prime suspect. This series also gives the reader a strong sense of daily life in Stockholm, and both novels address some larger issues such as the domestic abuse and the state of mental health care.

Stockholm is a fascinating city and it’s been the source of inspiration to several writers. Little wonder there is terrific crime fiction that takes place there. I’ve only had space to mention a few examples. What’s your favourite Stockholm-based novel or series?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Scandinavian Skies.

Contributor Details:

Margot Kinberg is an Associate Professor working in the fields of linguistics and literacy, a published crime writer and prolific blogger. At Confessions of a Mystery Novelist her daily posts on the themes and ideas explored in crime fiction are always thought-provoking and the back catalogue is a fabulous resource for anyone even vaguely interested in the genre. Margot’s occasional quizzes are fiendish fun for the aficionados. Those familiar with Margot’s blog will not be surprised to see she has found a Billy Joel connection to Scandinavia 🙂


This week’s much loved crime novel is a modern Swedish epic and is the choice of Yvonne Klein, editor of Reviewing the Evidence, one of the web’s oldest and best sites devoted to this genre.

UK cover

UK cover

In the heady days of 1975, a band of young people took over the West German Embassy in Stockholm, holding hostages, mining the place with explosives, and demanding the release of members of Baader-Meinhof, the Red Army Faction (RAF), then being held in a German prison in harsh conditions. The Swedish police, perhaps a bit unclear on the concept, waited for the “Stockholm syndrome” to kick in, but before the affair was over, two hostages were shot and killed, and two Red Army Faction members were dead or dying as a result of accidentally detonating their own bombs. Persson recounts the events, which indeed happened, in the detached and faintly sardonic tone that characterizes the style of the narrative as a whole. Eleven years later, the Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme, was assassinated. The perpetrator has never been established, but RAF did claim responsibility for the murder, via a group calling itself the Holger Meins Commando, Meins being a jailed member who died during a hunger strike in prison in 1974. All this is essential history for the weighty novel that follows from it.

Clearly, the terrorists must have had help, and local help at that. Who these may have been was not established and there seems to have been a curious reluctance on the part of politicians and police to pursue the matter too closely. In the end, the matter is allowed to die out, swaddled in the notion that terrorism was somehow so “un-Swedish.”

US Cover

US Cover

We leap forward to 1989, to the scene of a fictional murder of a government statistician named Kjell Göran Eriksson, stabbed in his flat. He might have survived had not the emergency services been otherwise employed thanks to a mass rally of Swedish nationalists and neo-Nazis commemorating King Charles XII. The investigation falls rapidly into the sweaty hands of Inspector Bäckström, who comes almost instantly to the unshakeable conclusion, based on the undeniable neatness of Eriksson’s flat and the tastefulness of his furnishings, that Eriksson was the victim of a homosexual affair gone wrong,. Bäckström, who also appeared in the first novel in this trilogy, BETWEEN SUMMER’S LONGING AND WINTER’S END, is an appalling toad, obsessively fixated on possible homosexuality wherever he looks. His vocabulary consists almost exclusively of anti-gay terms of abuse, of which he has a limitless store. As for women, he views his female colleagues all as “temporary,” (real police being, of course, male) and if they are insufficiently subordinate, as “attack dykes.” He is, moreover venal – in this case sneaking back into Eriksson’s flat to pack up the victim’s suitcases with as much liquor as he can manage and lifting as well some bath towels to which he has taken a fancy. In time and to no one’s surprise, the investigation peters out.

But just before the statute of limitations will run out on the embassy attack, it surfaces once again in March, 2000 and this time, much has changed. There is a strong political motive to clarify the identity of the Swedish citizens who abetted the German terrorists. The bulk of the investigation is carried out by a group of women police officers, one of whom Bäckström viewed as temporary ten years previously. And their police work is inspired. Gradually the embassy case intersects with the Eriksson murder to produce a brilliant solution to both crimes. Do the women police get credit for their labours? Well, not everything has changed in Sweden. Is strict justice done? Well, that depends.

ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER LIFE is a monumental novel, of a kind that with its irony, coolness, and thinly disguised fury at the decline of social democracy is hard to imagine being presented as a crime novel in America. If it were not for the wistful hope of the emergence of a new Stieg Larsson, I wonder if it would have been translated at all. And readers who also hope for another Lisbeth Salander will be sadly disappointed. ANOTHER TIME is very short on action, deficient in thrill, and infinitely detailed. It does, on the other hand, effectively meld fiction with historical fact and situate a crime within the context of massive historical change. It is also engrossing and provocative and, in Paul Norlen’s translation, very readable indeed.

Maxine Clarke shared Yvonne’s enjoyment of this novel and posted her own review last year which prompted the book’s inclusion on the shortlist for the inaugural Petrona Award.

Book Details:

author: Leif G.W. Persson
original language: Swedish
translator: Paul Norlen
publication date (UK): 2012

Contributor Details:

In addition to being an editor and regular reviewer at Reviewing the Evidence Yvonne Klein is a retired professor, writer and translator living in Montreal.

INTO A RAGING BLAZE by Andreas Norman

This week’s much-loved crime novel is something those of us who can’t read Swedish won’t have had a chance to read yet, which does make it an oddly perfect choice for this site. It is the choice of the multilingual Ann who discusses books at Bookwitch (and at Swedish Bookwitch).

IntoARagingBlazeI would like to think that this new Swedish thriller, which has yet to be translated into English – but is going to be – will be the next huge success story from the country that gave the world the Millennium trilogy. And I would like to think that Maxine as Petrona would have been among the first ones to read, review and above all, to like it.

Written by Swedish diplomat Andreas Norman, who has so far only produced a little poetry, INTO A RAGING BLAZE is a terrific read. EN RASANDE ELD, as it is in the original, is more thriller than detective story. Like THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, it begins with seemingly unconnected things, and the seemingly humdrum routines ‘at home’ at the Foreign Office in Stockholm.

You wouldn’t think that finding out about department meetings or how to request a new office chair for yourself would be interesting. But it’s compelling reading from the first page, and by the time you’ve grown quite fond of FO employee Carina Dymek, her career is in tatters and you swiftly move on to Secret Security Agent Bente Jensen, based in Brussels.

Bente is probably very slightly on the autistic spectrum. She is no Lisbeth Salander, though. Very likeable and very competent, it is she and her secret team who have to work out what’s happened. Did Carina really handle top secret, potentially terrorist, material on purpose, or was she set up? Is her Arab boyfriend Jamal cultivating her to aid him in some sinister plot? Or are they – as they seem to be – simply two nice young people, accidentally caught up in something much bigger?

MI6 are the bad guys here. You need to get used to that. Very efficient, and quite scathing about the naïve Swedes, they really set the ball rolling. And once they have, it’s well nigh impossible to stop it.

So here you have various secret services having to work together, but in reality working against each other. It is very much a page turner, and you get quite paranoid after a while. How can anyone ever be safe from the intrusion of agents the world over?

It’s not great literature, but you don’t need it to be. INTO A RAGING BLAZE is the first of a trilogy featuring Bente Jensen. It was published in Sweden this spring, with the second one due in 2014. English language readers have something fantastic to look forward to.

Book Details:

author: Andreas Norman
original language: Swedish
translator: unknown
publication date (UK): not yet (published in Swedish in 2013, Quercus has the worldwide rights)

Contributor Details:

Ann Giles was born in Sweden but lives in the UK with her British husband. She discusses an eclectic mix of children’s books, crime fiction, and literary works at Bookwitch (and Swedish Bookwitch). In addition to her reviews her author interviews are a treat.

The Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

This week’s much loved crime is an homage from crime writer Quentin Bates to one of the world’s great series of novels

A pair of weird names stood out from the bookshelf. This was a long time ago, some time in the middle of the 1970s and I was a schoolboy with my nose almost permanently in a book. The two odd names were on a row of paperbacks on my Mum’s bookshelf among the Ed McBains and the collections of Dorothy L Sayers and Patricia Highsmith that still fill the old lady’s bookshelves today.

An early English edition of Roseanna, the first novel of the series

An early English edition of Roseanna, the first novel of the series

The odd pairing was too much to resist. With only a vague idea of idea how to pronounce the two names, I was hooked within a couple of pages. There was no internet then, no easily googled information, but the scant blurb inside the books indicated that Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were a husband-and-wife pair of crime writers from Sweden. That was it. It was years before I found out any more about them and the books that opened a whole new world.

The lives and attitudes of Martin Beck, Gunvald Larsen, Einar Rönn, Fredrik Melander Lennart Kollberg and their wives, girlfriends superiors and colleagues, not least the boneheaded patrolmen Kvant and Kristiansson (plus Kvastmo, who stepped in after Kvant was killed), were a revelation to this spotty, bookish teenager.

This was proper gritty crime, like the American stuff, but it was so much better, set in Europe and somehow it was just more believable. There was something entirely credible about the lives of these flawed Swedish coppers and it was a world away from comfy drawing rooms and hard-bitten fedora-hatted gumshoes.

The Harper Perennial editions of the series released from 2006 make a great looking set and each has an introduction from a leading contemporary crime writer.

The Harper Perennial editions of the series released from 2006 make a great looking set and each has an introduction from a leading contemporary crime writer.

Sweden was a distant country then, a byword for blondes and skinny dipping, but Sjöwall and Wahlöö showed a seamier, more realistic side to this Scandinavian utopia, still with a level of permissiveness and freedom in spite of its flaws that was a world away from English suburbia. There was a subtle undercurrent of social commentary in the books that was missing from other crime fiction and gave the stories a hard edge. It was only years later that I discovered the authors had been committed Marxists and that the Martin Beck novels had been written as a social commentary on the ills of Swedish society.

The writing is still as fresh today as it was then. It’s spare prose with no wasted space. If you disregard the fact that there are no mobile phones and that Martin Beck and his colleagues travel by bus, then they could be set today.

Once I found that there was a series of ten, the gaps in Mum’s shelves were plugged with visits to the library and before long I had read the lot. Then… nothing. There wasn’t any more Scandinavian crime to be had in English. Apart from a few oddities that turned up that weren’t easily found in a pre-internet age, it wasn’t until Miss Smilla and her unique feeling for snow appeared on the scene that we Brits had a similarly insightful peek into Scandinavia’s nuts and bolts.

The rest is history and these days we’re spoilt for choice. But I still have a row of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s books, one or two of them much-thumbed copies that never did find their way back to Mum’s bookshelves all those years ago. Almost fifty years on, the Martin Beck novels still hold their own among the flood of Nordic crime now available in English, and practically every Nordic crime writer (the small group of Nordic pretenders included) is indebted to to Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

Book Details:

author: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö wrote a total of ten novels in the Martin Beck series which is collectively known as The Story of a Crime. In publication date order they are

  1. Roseanna,
  2. The Man Who Went Up In Smoke
  3. The Man on the Balcony
  4. The Laughing Policeman
  5. The Fire Engine that Disappeared
  6. Murder at the Savoy
  7. The Abominable Man
  8. The Locked Room
  9. Cop Killer
  10. The Terrorists

original language: Swedish
translators: varied
publication date (UK): Roseanna was first published in 1966, The Terrorists in 1975.

Contributor Details:

Quentin Bates was born in the UK, spent a gap year decade in Iceland and is now a journalist and crime fiction writer with a series of novels featuring a widowed police sergeant serving on a rural Icelandic force. For more visit his website or follow him on twitter.

And the winner is…

The Petrona Award trophy (image courtesy of Emma  Buckley and Euro Crime)

The Petrona Award trophy (image courtesy of Emma Buckley and Euro Crime)

At CrimeFest this weekend the winner of the inaugural Petrona Award for best Scandinavian crime fiction translated into English was announced as Liza Marklund’s LAST WILL, translated by Neil Smith. To celebrate the win we’re posting Maxine Clarke’s original review of the novel which was first run at her blog in May 2012. We’re sure that once you’ve read the review you’ll be itching to find a copy of the book.

LAST WILL is a fantastic, intelligent crime thriller, containing all the elements I love about the genre. Annika Bengtzon is a crime reporter for the Evening Post, a tabloid newspaper. She’s attending the annual Nobel banquet for the paper, a formal ceremony in which the new laureates dine with the Swedish royal family and assorted dignitaries. Annika is dancing with another reporter when shots are fired – the laureate for medicine and the head of the Nobel committee are hit. Because Annika is a witness, the senior police investigator “Q” slaps a non-disclosure order on her under terrorist legislation.

Annika’s boss is only too keen to find an excuse to keep her away from the office for a while, so she agrees to a period of paid leave. She and Q go back a long way, however, so she keeps up with the investigation, soon realising that the official solution as reported in the papers is a long way from the real truth of the events of that night. Annika also gets to know some of the biological scientists who work at the Karolinska Institute, finding out about their work and how the Nobel prizes are decided upon each year.

LastWillMarklundLiza15232_fDuring this time, Annika moves house into a rural suburb just outside Stockholm, using the money she was awarded in RED WOLF, the previous novel in the series. Annika’s marriage to the selfish, smug Thomas is on the rocks — though she is a devoted mother to her two young children and would not do anything to jeopardise their well-being. Thomas not only exploits Annika on the domestic front, but is becoming politically incompatible with her: he has moved from his original job in local government to a new position in the Ministry of Justice, helping to prepare stringent new anti-terrorist legislation that Annika finds appalling. Not only are things bad with Thomas, but Annika’s oldest friend Anne, who regular readers will know has gone through many ordeals with Annika in the past, has become increasingly unstable and unsympathetic as her own life and career implode, criticising Annika while at the same time sponging on her.

LAST WILL is by no means overwhelmed with domestic trivia, however. It is a clever, muscular thriller, combining exciting action with analyses of many contemporary issues: the dangers of security and terrorist legislation, in particular in the tragic case of a man accused of the Nobel atrocity; the plight of modern journalism and what proprietors do to survive in the internet era; the politics of the science profession and the scope for corruption by the financial interests of drug companies; some great descriptions of biological research; the ethics of scientific publication; and, underlying it all, a cracking, puzzling crime – why was the Nobel victim chosen, who was behind the events of that night, and what is the relationship between the first and subsequent crimes? None of these themes is treated as a cliché or in any predictable way; each is attacked with a fresh perspective by the author, abetted by Annika’s characteristic refusal to compromise.

One of the strengths of this novel is the author’s ability to convey vividly the stresses of modern parenthood and family life, from apparently trivial incidents with difficult neighbours to dangerous events between school “friends”. Without overdoing it, many of the elements in the story turn out to be either related or to have a direct impact on the climactic events towards the end.

I can’t recommend this novel too highly. This series has always been one of my very favourites, but here the author has surpassed herself with a great story, some intriguing historical elements, and convincing human interest – Annika’s dilemmas as a mother, wife and dedicated professional journalist are conveyed in a completely convincing manner that had me rooting for her at the end when she is forced to make a critical decision. And the crime plot is as solid and multi-layered as any I’ve read, as Annika’s tenacity and courageous nature force her to try to uncover what’s really going on. Neil Smith’s translation is remarkably natural, matching the author’s message with perfection. This novel is going to be hard to beat as my crime novel of the year.

This review was first published at Petrona in May 2012

Book Details:

author: Liza Marklund
original language: Swedish
translator: Neil Smith
publication date (UK): 2012

Contributor Details:

Maxine Clarke was the passionate crime fiction reader, reviewer and advocate who inspired this site and the Petrona Award itself

Chilled by Roslund and Hellstrom

This week’s post comes to us from Ali Karim who is or has been editor, writer or contributor to just about every crime fiction publication worth its salt in recent years and here discusses how he came to read – and appreciate – the work of the Swedish crime writing duo made up of journalist Anders Roslund and reformed criminal Börge Hellström

I was taken aback last December when I heard the terrible news of the passing of Maxine Clarke, better known with her reviewing hat as “Petrona”. The book reviewing world lost one its champions, especially one for an eye for translated fiction. I often shared similar interests with Maxine, especially with the work of the Swedish duo [Anders] Roslund and [Borge] Hellstrom.

In October 2010, Roslund and Hellstrom were over in the UK launching their novel Three Seconds. Their publisher Quercus had arranged a party in the West End. Many critics / reviewers were invited and I was delighted to see Karen Meek and Maxine Clarke among the guests.

During the party, I managed to interview Roslund Hellstrom for The Rapsheet and produced a two part feature.

In part one, I referenced Maxine’s review for The Vault [aka BOX 21], a novel that I also loved but Maxine’s insight like all her reviews was delightful –

The Vault is a very dark book indeed, a compelling, fast-paced and fresh take on those well-worn staples of crime-fiction: the hostage drama and sex-trafficking. It is also a police procedural, told with relentless cynicism. I think it’s an excellent novel, but you have been warned!

I think this book is quite brilliant, most particularly in the story of the tragic Lydia, both in the present day and in the past, as she remembers her younger life and as Sundqvist finds out the details of her betrayal. It made me very angry indeed as the authors explore to the limit the extent to which the police bind together to protect their own, and how in so doing they are betraying those weaker victims of society who not only need their protection the most, but who the police are entrusted to serve. 

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In part two of my feature I interviewed Roslund Hellstrom as a precursor to their visit to Bouchercon 2010 in San Francisco.

So it appeared that Maxine and I agreed in our enthusiastic championing of these two Swedish Writers –

the-beast-roslund-hellstromMy introduction to Roslund (a journalist) and Hellström (a reformed ex-criminal who works to help place ex-cons back into society) came during the winter of 2005. As usual, I was reading more books than I ever had time to review. But one that I did want to comment on–The Beast, Roslund and Hellström’s debut novel–I found I could not write a word about. Although I’ve read many shocking and disturbing works of crime fiction in my time, The Beast took my psyche beyond anything I had ever experienced before. After I’d finished the book, I reflected back with new insight on the précis that publisher Little, Brown had sent along with it:

Two children are found dead in a basement. Four years later their murderer escapes from prison. The police know if he is not found quickly, he will kill again. But when their worst fears come true and another child is murdered in the nearby town of Strengnas, the situation spirals out of control. In an atmosphere of hysteria whipped up by the media, Fredrik Steffansson, the father of the murdered child, decides he must take revenge. His actions will have devastating consequences. As anger spreads across the whole country, the two [Stockholm] detectives assigned to the case–Ewert Grens and Sven Sunkist–find themselves caught up in a situation of escalating violence. A powerful and at times profoundly shocking novel, The Beast has been likened to both Hitchcock and Le Carré. It is also an important and timely exploration of what can happen when we take the law into our own hands. It has been shortlisted for Glasnyckeln 2005 [The Glass Key Award] for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year.

I am the father of three children, and what The Beast did was challenge my bleeding-heart-liberal values system. It made me think about the question: What would I be capable of doing, should a predatory pedophile commit the unthinkable act of murdering my offspring?

I found it as disturbing as Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone, another book about youngsters victimized by adults, published seven years earlier. I thought perhaps I would be capable of exacting a terrible retribution from my children’s attacker. But Roslund and Hellström added a further dimension to their tale, detailing the consequences that can come of such vengeful, blind-rage acts.

After I finished that novel, I couldn’t rid myself of the images it had embedded in my mind. And the idea of revisiting the world of The Beast in order to write a review repulsed me. So I put the book away in a box and tried to erase the memory of having read it.

Then along came Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008). I was already interested in Swedish crime fiction, but that work made me so much more so. After hassling the delightful Lucy Ramsey and Nicci Praça at Quercus Publishing for an early copy of Dragon Tattoo, I published the first English-language review of it here in The Rap Sheet. I went on to write more about Larsson and his debut novel. But, like everybody else, I had to wait … and wait … and wait until its sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, was released by Quercus in 2009. In the meantime, I found a copy of Roslund and Hellström’s Box 21 (published in the States as The Vault), the follow-up to The Beast–also starring detectives Sven Sundkvist and Ewert Grens–in my possible-review pile. I held it in my hands as if it were a cobra preparing to strike. The Beast still haunted me; was I ready yet to give Box 21 a try?

Thankfully, Box 21’s plot did not involve children. Here’s the synopsis:

the-vault-box-21-roslund-hellstromWhen a severely wounded woman is brought to a hospital in Stockholm, doctors are horrified to learn that her injuries are the result of a brutal whipping. She is Lydia, a victim of people-trafficking, a young girl from Lithuania sold by her boyfriend and now trapped in a Stockholm brothel, forced to repay her “debt.” In the same hospital, police officer Sven Sundkvist and senior officer Ewert Grens are chasing a lead that may just expose a notorious mafia boss, a dangerous man Grens hates with a vengeance. Two stories of passionate reprisal twist together, ending in a dramatic climax: two bullet-riddled bodies and a room full of hostages in the hospital’s basement. But in the cold light of day, will Sven protect the senior officer he so admires, even from his own corruption?

So I brewed up some coffee one evening, cracked Box 21’s spine, and discovered another deeply twisted yarn that held a mirror to my values system. Petrona’s Maxine Clarke summed up my own reaction to Box 21, calling it “a very dark book indeed, a compelling, fast-paced and fresh take on those well-worn staples of crime fiction: the hostage drama and sex-trafficking. It is also a police procedural, told with relentless cynicism. I think it’s an excellent novel, but you have been warned!”

Following the release of Box 21, though, Roslund and Hellström pretty much fell off my radar, because Little, Brown UK stopped publishing their work in English. Which was a great disappointment. Even though their stories were disquieting and forbidding, I was impressed by their writing abilities and their sheer brilliance in unfolding a tale ripped from the headlines. The pair were also fearless in handling subjects unflinchingly, that many other scribes would have avoided.

Today, I miss Maxine’s insight into the crime-fiction genre, as she championed so many writers, introducing them to readers.

I am delighted that we are remembering Petrona with an Annual Award keeping Maxine Clarke’s name alive, as well as using her name to enthuse readers with the best of translated crime fiction.

Ali Karim 

Book Details:

authors: Anders Roslund and reformed criminal Börge Hellström (learn more at their website)
original language: Swedish
translator: The Beast, Anna Paterson; Box 21/The Vault, unknown (possibly the authors themselves)
publication date (UK): The Beast 2005, Box 21/The Vault 2009

Contributor Details:

Ali Karim is a Company Director, freelance journalist and book reviewer living in England. In addition to being the Assistant Editor of the e-zine Shots, he’s also a contributing editor at January Magazine, writes for Deadly Pleasures and Crimespree magazines as well as Ali is also an associate member [and literary judge] for both the British Crime Writers Association as well as The International Thriller Writers Inc


This week’s contribution comes from a university librarian with varied interests across the reading and writing world, including Scandinavian crime fiction. Barbara Fister’s essay describes the journey she sees in the author’s writing.

One of my favorite writers is the Swedish author Åsa Larsson, whose series set in the far north of Sweden combines lovely writing, complex characters, and an evocative setting.

When I read the first in the series, SUN STORM (aka THE SAVAGE ALTAR), I described it as “a stunning book, beautifully written and engaging, that takes us from Stockholm, where Rebecka Martinsson works long hours in a soulless law office on tax cases, to Kiruna in the arctic north, where a man Rebecka knew has been murdered ritualistically in a church – and his sister, Rebecka’s childhood friend, is the prime suspect. The massive church built to house a revivalist, fundamentalist sect called The Source of All Our Strength, has pastors who aren’t cooperating with the investigation, led by a very pregnant police detective. The book has wonderful characters, a twisty plot, and a tremendous sense of place. Though the ending was a bit over the top, I found the book quite amazing.”

I put off reading the second book in the series for some time, but finally got around to reading THE BLOOD SPILT. As in SUN STORM, religion plays a major role. A woman pastor, who has rubbed the religious establishment the wrong way, has roused the local women with her feminist principles and encouragement to throw off their oppression and enjoy life. The part of the book I liked the most was the way Rebecka, who had returned to Stockholm and to her soulless work as a tax lawyer, suppressing the emotional upheaval of what happened in SUN STORM but too traumatized to pick up her career again, rediscovers the natural world and her long-suppressed love of her northern roots. I was reminded, reading this book, that Larsson is probably the strongest of the Scandinavian crime fiction writers in terms of style. Her language is evocative and lovely.

The third book, THE BLACK PATH, was aggravating – not because it wasn’t a good novel, but because it did some things so brilliantly and others – not as brilliantly. It’s a complex story involving a Swedish mining corporation’s investments in African mines, the inner lives of three partners in the mining operation, the sister of one of the threesome who has been raised by a Sami family and has become an artist with a clairvoyant streak, plus further development of the characters of Rebecka Martinsson and Anna-Maria Mella, the more practical and family-oriented police investigator. It seemed to me there was simply too much going on in this book, particularly in the cinematic ending; yet there was also so much that was so very good that I was more cross than I would have been if I didn’t admire it so much.

UntilThyWrathBePastLars1503_fEverything I find admirable bout Asa Larsson’s work came together for me in her fourth book, UNTIL THY WRATH BE PAST. Asa Larsson is an excellent writer, but added to her stylish writing is a group of intriguing characters and a vivid setting that the author infuses with love. It’s one of those settings that seems terrifically appealing because the author has written so beautifully about it, though in reality I doubt I would really enjoy living in Kurravaara, so far north that in the winter the sun barely shows its face and in April, when this story takes place, the sun rises before 4 a.m. Rebecka Martinsson, who is now working as a prosecutor, seems happy, settled in the home that she left in her late teens. As UNTIL THY WRATH BE PAST opens, Rebecka seems grounded and fulfilled.
She is soon presented with what seems an unfortunate tragedy: the body of a long-missing girl is found in a river. She and her boyfriend went diving months ago, and now that her body has been discovered, authorities conclude they died in an accident. But readers know otherwise: they were murdered. While they were diving in an ice-bound lake someone deliberately blocked the hole they had cut in the ice, which we learn from the point of view of the girl, who remains in the story, observing and commenting on the action. Though I am not fond of supernatural elements in mysteries, Larsson pulls it off in large part because the dead girl is a vividly-realized character in her own right, the maverick child of a neglectful mother who came to live with her great-grandmother. The passages that give us her point of view after death give the reader a strong sense of a willful, daring young woman who won’t rest until her story is told.

Rebecka, her curiosity roused by a dream, suggests that the water in the dead girl’s lungs be tested, and so they discover that the girl drowned in a lake, where in the late years of World War II a Nazi supply plane went down. Someone, it seems, wants to be sure the wreck is never found. She and Inspector Anna-Maria Mella, who has become estranged from her closest colleagues following a decision she made in THE BLACK PATH, begin to investigate. In some ways, this isn’t much of a mystery; we have a strong inkling of who in the small village is likely responsible and we see some of the story from the point of view of a participant or witness to the murder. Yet Larsson has created a compelling story as we peel back the historical layers and the tainted relationships behind the deliberate drowning of two young people.

In this latest volume in the series, Larsson really hits her stride. She has given us a cast of characters we have come to know and care about, a setting that is vivid, a ghostly young woman who has a grounded, earthy reality, and a compelling story that explores Sweden’s troubling relationship with Nazi Germany. She offers a terrific combination of psychologically probing character development, action, and (for lack of a better word) a kind of poetry in her writing style that makes this series a particularly fine contribution to the genre.

Book Details:

author: Asa Larsson (learn more at wikipedia)
original language: Swedish
translator: Laurie Thompson
publication date (UK): August 2011 (Maclehouse Press (original publication date 2008)

Contributor Details:

Barbara Fister is a university librarian, writer of mysteries and observer of reading and writing in our culture. Her web home is here, her blog is here and her Scandinavian crime fiction interests are highlighted here.