To Cook a Bear by Mikael Niemi

It is 1852, and in Sweden’s far north, deep in the Arctic Circle, charismatic preacher and Revivalist Lars Levi Læstadius impassions a poverty-stricken congregation with visions of salvation. But local leaders have reason to resist a shift to temperance over alcohol.

Jussi, the young Sami boy Læstadius has rescued from destitution and abuse, becomes the preacher’s faithful disciple on long botanical treks to explore the flora and fauna. Læstadius also teaches him to read and write – and to love and fear God.

When a milkmaid goes missing deep in the forest, the locals suspect a predatory bear is at large. A second girl is attacked, and the sheriff is quick to offer a reward for the bear’s capture. Using early forensics and daguerreotype, Læstadius and Jussi find clues that point to a far worse killer on the loose, even as they are unaware of the evil closing in around them.

Mikael Niemi’s historical crime novel To Cook a Bear, in superb flowing translation from Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner, is a masterpiece, and an absolute literary revelation for me. The author grew up near the old parsonage in Pajala where the real-life leader and keen botanist lived with wife Brita Kajsa and his family until his death in 1861. The inspiration and the proximity to the location so significant at the time, sparked Niemi’s interest and propelled his imagination to create a gripping semi-detective tale of communities turning inwards when panic and the incomprehensible happen. The meandering path from superstition and fear can quickly turn into injustice and violence, and nothing can prevent unfair treatment of those who are different or not belonging. The book becomes more than just a fascinating engaging and breath-taking search for the killer where Læstadius follows logic, calm reasoning and all scientific methods available to him while the those in power become his enemies. The main players: foundry owner, merchant, bailiff and sheriff want quick results (yes, let’s catch and kill the beastly animal!) and no ‘meddling’ in their business. To Cook a Bear takes various religious thoughts and dismantles them into both lyrical and brutal philosophical journey.   

The story is set in a distant location at Kengis in the parish of Pajala in northern Sweden, close to the Finnish border, and we follow Jussi, a wanderer, observing life from the sidelines and being an outcast narrator: Although he wants to fit in, he is fully aware of his strange fate: ‘Clothes on my back, knife in my belt, fire striker and cup, horn spoon, pouch of salt.’ His life is harsh, yet thanks to the pastor he has a chance to encounter gentler facets of nature and humanity and to learn to read and write, while trying to understand God. Faced with the difficult question ‘What are you doing to combat the world’s evil’ he’s not quite ready to come up with ideas but the process of thinking and experiencing knowledge helps him to feel some hope. Damaged by the abuse, hunger and poverty, he’s convinced (wrongly) of own unlovable character: ‘No-one looking at me breaks into a smile or feels the easy joy I have seen in others. No woman meets my eye with a grin but instead she will tense and turn away.’ Yet he is in love and prepared to sacrifice everything to help a woman of his dreams, of his physical and emotional desires which are so complex they might be derived straight from Satan. That’s the only possible interpretation… Given the chance Jussi would have become a wise educated man; alas, his story was not so happy.

‘The greatest sin people can commit is not to love their children.’

Together with the pastor he glimpsed into the possibility of improving lives of the local neighbourhoods and people whose existence was particularly tough: Sami people, Swedes and Finns, and occasional Norwegians who had ventured into the area. Jussi discovered the joy of reading, of creating sounds in own head and trying to speak eloquently: ‘If you owned books, you would never be alone.’ And the religious revival seemed like an opportunity: ‘It is an inner revolution. Instead of overthrowing those in power, the battle is within the inner tyrants. With self-righteousness, arrogance, pride, with desire for ostentation and carnal pleasures. Only when inner demons are brought down and slain, can society undergo a lasting change.’

And I will leave you with the quote that carries simplicity taken from the close bond with the nature, into the universal contemporary themes:   

‘Most people behave like reindeer. They want to walk with others, move forward in a herd. If a female grunts, the others will start to grunt too. If a male gives out a warning signal, they all run, even if they haven’t seen the danger themselves. The reindeer navigates by fear, its enemies are the wolverine, the wolf, the bear and the lynx. A human being is also afraid, created that way by our Lord. Luther’s call was to love and fear God. But we love and fear each other with the same intensity. And most of all we fear losing one another. Being alone, being separated from the protection of our herd.’

To Cook a Bear – Amazon

To Cook a Bear –

Eva Björg Ægisdóttir: Girl who questions lies

During Iceland Noir festival in November 2018 Eva Björg Ægisdóttir was one of the new authors introduced by Quentin Bates at the New Icelandic Noir panel, together with Robert Marvin, Kristján Atli Ragnarsson and Simon Cox. Apologies for the quality of my photo but it was dark and mysterious, and the shadowy atmosphere mirrored the themes perfectly.

Fast forward to 2021 and Eva Björg Ægisdóttir’s Forbidden Iceland series is in full swing, and by that I mean the first two books have been translated into English by Victoria Cribb and published by Orenda Books. Her debut The Creak on the Stairs won the Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger, strengthening her position as brilliant and exciting new voice in the Icelandic crime fiction. The second book, Girls Who Lie, followed as a much more confident sophisticated story of murder and assumptions, perceptions and expectations within tight communities. Both novels are cleverly constructed slow-burning police procedurals which take on the concepts of truth and existence in small towns. And locations that leave traces for ever and remain in people’s bloodstream.

What Ægisdóttir does so elegantly is the subtle understated yet extremely powerful psychological analysis of the main and secondary characters, while at the same time she fills the narration with unsettling details, creating absorbing and chilling stories, reflecting some ordinary yet universal truths. Elma, the emotionally wounded core character in the novels, becomes fully alive and vividly present in the moral dilemmas of people she comes in contact with. The contrast between doggedly mundane yet tenacious police work and the superb twists which are so reluctant to come to the surface, makes a huge impression. And thus, increases the level of tension. Another element of her writing that captures the imagination and resonates with the readers is the landscape of and around Akranes on the west coast of Iceland, a place that is close enough to the big noise of the capital Reykjavik, yet distant enough for its inhabitants to feel isolated or disconnected, or hidden if they want.

Here are some photos of Akranes’ old and new lighthouses with the appropriate background of wind, rain and dark moody wintery clouds.

The Creak on the Stairs

When a body of a woman is discovered at a lighthouse in the Icelandic town of Akranes, it soon becomes clear that she’s no stranger to the area. Chief Investigating Officer Elma, who has returned to Akranes following a failed relationship, and her colleagues Sævar and Hörður, commence an uneasy investigation, which uncovers a shocking secret in the dead woman’s past that continues to reverberate in the present day. But as Elma and her team make a series of discoveries, they bring to light a host of long-hidden crimes that shake the entire community. Sifting through the rubble of the townspeople’s shattered memories, they have to dodge increasingly serious threats, and find justice… before it’s too late.

Girls Who Lie

When single mother Maríanna disappears from her home, leaving an apologetic note on the kitchen table, everyone assumes that she’s taken her own life… until her body is found on the Grábrók lava fields seven months later, clearly the victim of murder. Her neglected fifteen-year-old daughter Hekla has been placed in foster care, but is her perfect new life hiding something sinister? Fifteen years earlier, a desperate new mother lies in a maternity ward, unable to look at her own child, the start of an odd and broken relationship that leads to a shocking tragedy.

Police officer Elma and her colleagues take on the case, which becomes increasingly complex, as the number of suspects grows and new light is shed on Maríanna’s past – and the childhood of a girl who never was like the others.

Iceland Noir (Iceland Noir on twitter) crime fiction festival in Reykjavik is being planned and organised right now. Tickets are on sale, and let’s hope it can happen this year Iceland Noir 2021 – tickets

Utøya, Oslo, Norway

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks by a white supremacist in Oslo’s government district and on the island of Utøya. In the last week the Norwegian media have been full of memories, evaluations, recollections. Sadness and anger. Most of all: the desire not to have experience anything like that again. 77 people lost their lives, 69 of them were left-ish teenagers at the summer camp.

Today Oslo sparkled with sunshine and noises of everyday life; however, the national events to remember the dead and not forgotten young people have been solemn and thoughtful.

It is not my place to provide own analysis of this tragedy. Instead, I would like to republish my review (originally on Crime Review pages) of the novel which shook me, and made a huge impression on my understanding of consequences of the killing spree and reactions by ordinary people.

Scottish Cal and Norwegian Elsa left their home in Washington DC to stay for six months in Norway, with their two teenage daughters and a baby son. The change of scene brought also a devastating change to their lives: fifteen-year-old Licia vanished from a summer camp on a tranquil island where two men shot tens of youngsters. Desperate and destroyed family falls apart, doubting one another, mistrusting the police, losing faith and hope to ever survive this mental ordeal.

The Island hits you hard from the very first paragraphs. An idyllic image of a fifteen-year-old girl ‘sleeping alone on a grassy bank at the side of a glistening fjord.’ Distant voices of more girls attending International Future Female holiday camp; visions of empowering the youngsters, respect for the others and the environment. True Norwegian dream… But the tranquillity of such a serene moment becomes ruined as soon she feels shockwaves of a bomb explosion coming from a capital city nearby. Two police officers arrive at the island and round up all teenagers in one place, and start shooting. The girl realises that the men cannot be the real police, tries to warn others, and help a younger boy, tries in vain to escape from the site of the massacre. Then she vanishes.

The nation is in shock. Devastated parents of ninety-one murdered victims cannot comprehend what had happened in their safe country, ‘practical, elegant and egalitarian’ encapsulating the best Scandinavian values, as someone has pointed out half-ironically, half-desperately. A year later a trial is held of two brothers, representing Tactical Brigades of the Knights Templar.

Licia’s parents Cal and Elsa Curtis cannot move on after the massacre, delve into their missing daughter’s secrets and discover strange activities of their younger girl Vee. Their personal microcosmos shattered, doubts and suspicions of one another appear. Elsa seems to be more mysterious and aloof. Cal reaches out to charismatic Father Bror of the Patriotic Order of the Temple Knights, who had known Elsa in the past and who offers advice. Because now the couple distrust the police even if Cal and the Chief of Police form an uneasy friendship.

Ben McPherson weaves the chilling unsettling story of grief and despair into the modern take on the Norwegian reality. His detailed razor-sharp perception of differences between cultural and social aspects of different societies gives drama and depth to the vividly authentic main characters who struggle to process their trauma. Elsa, an uncompromising photographer and quintessential Nordic goddess, lives by the principle of absolute honesty in her approach to life. Cal, a Scottish satirist, remains a foreigner, an observer, slightly adrift in Norway where the family moved for a while after living in the USA for many years. As a spectator to the national tragedy he feels that his own family falls apart as a result of not knowing if Licia is dead or alive, whether she somehow managed to survived the massacre, and at the same time hearing of his little girl hailed as a hero. That last element makes him equally proud and concerned: a video footage shot by a TV crew in a helicopter shows a girl wearing a distinct dress and saving lives of other youths. But an old photo of Licia holding a gun during a shooting practice in the USA emerges and appeals to those blinded by white power.

The aftermath of the terrorist attack in July 2011 in Oslo and on Utøya echoes throughout this gripping intense novel, and occasionally makes for disconcerting reading as The Island is inspired by true events. However, the author meticulously analyses the aftershock experienced by all members of the society and the emotional consequences impacting Curtis’ family perspectives and that process of change, of attempting to rationalise their responses, of processing all contradictory feelings, is told with sensitivity and understanding. This psychological thriller is deftly penned by an author who sees even the smallest differences in the changing society, and through this prism he delivers an outstanding study in personal heartbreak.

Ben McPherson’s The Island was published by Harper Collins (hardback 2020, paperback 2021)

Fragile by Sarah Hilary

Everything she touches breaks… Nell Ballard is a runaway. A former foster child with a dark secret she is desperately trying to keep, all Nell wants is to find a place she can belong. So when a job comes up at Starling Villas, home to the enigmatic Robin Wilder, she seizes the opportunity with both hands. But her new lodgings may not be the safe haven that she was hoping for. Her employer lives by a set of rigid rules and she soon sees he is hiding secrets of his own. But is Nell’s arrival at the Villas really the coincidence it seems? After all, she knows more than most how fragile people can be – and how easy they can be to break…

Connections are important and valuable, and my Nordic / Scandi connections often appear in completely unexpected places… I could have searched for them in Sarah Hilary’s standalone stunning novel; however, there is no need for big explorations. What matters is that relationships and interactions, and lack of the real deep meaningful links between people, are universal. Human condition in all its shades. In Fragile Hilary created a hypnotic and claustrophobic world into which we are invited via the front door of the Starling Villas. Reluctantly we follow a runaway foster girl, or rather a young woman, Nell on the brink of discovering how her own upbringing and life experience might, or not, fit in the real world. Of course, the realism of the new life contrasts with the skewed authenticity of what she had known. Nell escaped with her best friend Joe from the home in Wales, a place run by Megan, a woman not necessarily evil and malicious, but lacking empathy and understanding. Yet we are not quite sure whether we truly are within the realistic environment of an old London house, wedged between two modern buildings, and steeped in darkness and mystery, and owned by the enigmatic Dr Robin Wilder. Or is it all imagination? The cinematic quality of the writing, the gothic atmosphere of the location hiding many mysteries and uncomfortable rules, and the growing drama of creepiness make the novel so intense and gut-wrenching. Nell wants to belong, to be loved, to forget guilt of a terrible deed done by mistake, and feeling responsible for death of a little Rosie in Megan’s care, and at the same time she is not able to consciously express her emotions. And did she cause the tragic death? Did she use her body to survive the first weeks in London, to avoid tough existence on the streets? Will she be saved? And can she save Joe?

Fragile indeed presents fragility in many forms and brings this delicate state of feelings and reactions into our attention. It balances aspects of the real-life abuse and impacts on the young people in care who are not completely aware of their own paths in life, and struggle to process experiences that they have had, while subconsciously learning what love in many guises might mean, and whom to trust. Clashes between harsh brutal truth and Nell’s inner world take this story into the Victorian spectre of the difficult social issues such as homelessness, neglect, violence. Problems that have not vanished in spite of development of modern technology and apparent advances of social care. The intensity of feelings and the lingering sense of impending doom, beautifully and sensitively written plot, and weaving delicate Japanese motives into the quiet tragedy of shame, guilt and passion are outstanding. A dark psychological thriller to be savoured, with a nod to Rebecca and to Dickensian traditions.

Here you can listen to Sarah Hilary discussing the book with Dr Noir – Dr Jacky Collins in the series of interviews The Doctor will see you now

Katla: writing process by Lilja Sigurðardóttir

The catastrophic eruption of subglacial volcano Katla turns a nearby community’s world upside down as mysteries begin to emerge from the ice.

(c) Netflix

I could say that Katla, streamed on Netflix, is currently making waves worldwide, yet this expression might not be quite correct… It’s more about darkness and dust, unsettling wind and ash clouds. The series certainly creates a significant impression on fans of Iceland and all aspects to do with this fascinating land, on readers of crime fiction books by Lilja Sigurðardóttir, one of the series’ writers, and all those who enjoy elements of science fiction mixed with the apparently ordinary life… I have watched all eight episodes in two sittings and then could not get the characters and the intriguing story out of my head. So I am absolutely delighted to share Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s thoughts on writing Katla:

‘Writing a screenplay differs quite a lot from writing a novel, mostly in the sense that novel writing is solitary while a screenplay for TV is most often a joint venture of a team of writers. This was the case with Katla. The original idea came from a team of RVK Studios guys, Baltasar Kormákur, Ólafur Egilsson and Sigurjón Kjartansson. They even had a pilot episode written many years ago. When the idea was revived in 2019 we set on it, a team of three writers along with producer, director and creator Baltasar Kormákur. The writers were Sigurjón Kjartansson, Iceland’s most experienced TV writer, Davíð Már Stefánsson, a newly graduated screenwriter from Columbia and myself. I am a crime writer and mostly write novels but I have also written stage plays and screenplays before.

So we had an idea to build on, a good idea indeed, and we had a premise for the series which was the question: ‘Do we dare face ourselves?‘ We began our work by setting up a Writers Room, which is not exactly a room, as we mostly holed down in Sigurjón´s office at the RVK Studio headquarters, but a method of working. We decided on the characters and took the time to discuss each one thoroughly until we felt we knew her or him. And then we set out with the storyline and discussed the story for approximately three episodes at the time. After about four or five days of the Writers Room we went our separate ways to write for a few weeks. And then we met again, reading each other’s work, getting notes and feedback from the team etc. and then we re-wrote and then started another Writer´s Room.

We also did things to inspire ourselves while writing Katla. We watched films and TV series we felt might be helpful and of course we rewatched Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky, a film many viewers have noted was a big inspiration for Katla, both in the story and atmosphere. The writer´s team also traveled to South Iceland, to the small village of Vik sitting right underneath the volcano Katla and the glacier covering it. That´s where the series takes place.

The geography of the place is inspiring to say the least. The black beaches, the barren landscape around with magnificent cliffs and the constant danger from the volcano. As Katla has erupted approximately every 100 years throughout Iceland’s history she is overdue for an eruption. And that is Icelanders‘ biggest nightmare. Do you remember the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010 that halted air traffic around the world for days? Well Katla is much, much bigger than that.

Besides the geography of South Iceland we were greatly inspired by the old Icelandic myths of the Hidden People, who are our kind of elves. They do not resemble what other Europeans envision as elves as our hidden people are full size and can easily be confused with regular people. And also there are many strange folk tales from the area, many of them connected to the rumblings of the volcanoes. During the writing we were probably drawn more and more towards that as we set out to write a Sci-Fi series but ended up with a wonderful hybrid of a show that does not quite fit into the genres of psychological drama, Sci-Fi or Nordic Noir.

We are very proud of Katla and hope many, many people enjoy the show.’

Knock Knock by Anders Roslund

He thought she was safe. Then the past came knocking.

Seventeen years ago Inspector Ewert Grens was called to the scene of a brutal crime. A family had been executed, with only their five-year-old daughter left alive. The girl was placed under witness protection and adopted but the case went cold – a fact that haunts Grens. When he learns that the apartment where the crime took place is now the scene of a mysterious break-in, Grens realises that someone is intent on silencing the only witness. He must find her… before they do.

Meanwhile, Piet Hoffman has put his life of crime and infiltrating the most dangerous criminal gangs behind him to live a peaceful life with his wife and three children. But one day, he returns home to find that someone has found him – and has the power to share his identity with some of the sadistic criminals that he has helped put away over the years. With the strong possibility that the police have been compromised, there is only one man he can trust to help him, and save his family.

Perfect for fans of Jo Nesbø, Samuel Bjørk and Stieg Larsson.

Anders Roslund (c) Emil Eiman-Roslund

I am delighted to join the #blogtour for #KnockKock by Anders Roslund.

It is amazing how the authors can create compulsive heart-pounding stories that have huge impact on the readers, particularly when it comes to the genre widely known as crime fiction which encompasses so many varieties. I believe that a fool proof way to find out more about some social issues is to read certain excellent crime novels which follow long-established tradition. In Sweden this has definitely come a long way since Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s partnership. Anders Roslund never loses the sight of brilliant storytelling, detailed characterisation and logical systematic construction in his writing while he continues to be a well-informed journalist. His collaboration with late Börge Hellström brought seven critically acclaimed books, including 3 Minutes and 3 Hours. In another venture and writing under the pseudonym Anton Svensson, duo Anders Roslund and Stefan Thunberg published Father and The Sons, focusing on familiar issues of violence, guilt and retribution.

In Knock Knock Roslund again takes on the grey area of law where the protagonists must operate, and created fully-developed main and secondary characters, each with own past, present and uncertain future, an array of emotions and experiences, and ways to deal with conflict. The familiar faces appear: Grens’ immediate boss Erik Wilson and detective Mariana Hermansson, and also a couple of bright new recruits, Each interaction is important and drives the plot towards explosive finale. Ex-criminal Piet Hoffman, with his overwhelming love for his family and still struggling with his past which shows its ugly head, and Inspector Ewert Grens, on the brink of retirement and haunted by the unsolved case, both deeply suspicious begin to trust each other and become unlikely partners for three days. Relationship between these two on the opposing sides of the law is complex, difficult, yet ultimately enriching. They both experienced and fear loneliness, and they find it difficult to open and show vulnerability. ‘Emotions are a liability. You don’t have to be a criminal to understand that. A quick glance at the emptiest, most desolate home Piet Hoffmann had ever visited. And right there, at that moment, they understood each other and were in complete agreement. That the ugliest, most dangerous enemy would always be loneliness.

Distinction between law and justice, ambiguous boundaries between classic bad guys and good guys, the law enforcers and criminals aren’t obvious just in the western world. The Albanian policeman is painfully aware of that: ‘Because in some cases justice and the law are two different things’

What I really enjoyed in this vast dramatic picture of power struggle was the journey into the criminal world of people who either found themselves as pawns in the big game or travelled specifically to Sweden to continue the arm trade and to spread violence. History of immigration from the Balkan countries, especially of the ex-Yugoslavian ethnic groups and establishing of new states in the region means that the Scandinavian dream often pulsates with the undercurrent of rage and anger. In this context decision that Hoffman, originally from Poland, must travel to Albania and so it becomes essential and urgent as it not only helps to deal with some of the huge problems facing the police but also demonstrates how the local people get drawn into the underground of socially accepted norms, some of them becoming major international players. Looking at the issues or problems of violence from inside, discovering the inner core, the engine room of the universe much bigger than the legal system in Sweden, adds grit, understanding and a degree of authenticity. In a similar vein Kati Hiekkapelto, the Finnish author of Anna Fekete series sends her heroine in The Exiled back to the Romanian / Hungarian place in northern Serbia from which she arrived in Finland to start a new life. Relativity within the legal system and the actual reality are shown with detailed perception.

Three days that Hoffman is given to save his family and solve an astonishing number of issues considering he has to rely on his own wits, previous experience, extensive yet invisible contacts while not contacting them at all. In a meantime Grens discovers superbly-executed clever revenge plan. Specific tasks within specified timeframe seem far fetched; however, in this excellent piece of fiction anything could be possible. And is. Novel’s narration is flawless, and so is the translation by Elizabeth Clark Wessel, making dark and unsettling Knock Knock one of the best books I’ve read this year.     

Roslund and Hellström: 3 Hours

3 Hours moves effortlessly between two continents and completely different locations, the civilised Sweden and the less so Niger and Libya, but even though the perception of these countries is of contrasting morals, what really ties them together in this context is basically the harsh criminal barbaric trade in human beings.

It all starts in Stockholm. Nearing his professional journey DCI Ewert Grens receives an emergency call to a morgue whose inventory is showing one corpse too many. This impossible situation leads him to Värta Harbour, one of the largest port areas, and centre of international ferry traffic where he discovers a horrendous cargo: dead bodies of seventy-three refugees, suffocated in a container. The initial investigation directs Grens and his excellent team of main players Sven and Mariana to another mortuary where more unidentified bodies are found, and then to the complicated tunnels underneath the city. This was the route to transport the dead. The shocking discovery means that people responsible for the mass killing know the underground area well and might be within police’s reach.

Next stop is Niamey in Niger, a West African city unheard of by many people. Grens decides to search for a man he had hoped to never see again after the last escapade to Colombia. Yet now he needs to find Piet Hoffmann whose fingertip was lifted from a phone by one of the victims. The ex-convict, former-government informer and Gren’s nemesis-turned-ally is forced to infiltrate the brutal ring responsible for the container corpses; the organisation known for brutality and greed, and treating the refugees worse than animals, even worse than any cargo weight. Hoffmann really has no choice but to agree to a two-week period in order to unmask the top figures so he could return to his wife and two young sons. His family supposed to be safe in a quiet Stockholm suburb yet is also connected to the vicious operators and hence in grave danger. Two weeks become three hours, and the tension goes through every roof imaginable.

Hoffmann’s life consists mostly of being on the run ‘from a life sentence in a Swedish prison, from a death sentence from the Polish mafia, then another one from the White House, and then one more from a South American drug cartel.’ Lying became his second nature and a powerful tool to infiltrate dangerous criminal organisations, and in this particular case the corporation specialising in human smuggling of desperate African refugees to Sweden and Germany. Violence is a by-product, yet we still root for him.

Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström excel in creating intense compelling plots encompassing huge international matters and ordinary human existence, including major social issues without lecturing or judging, even if their stance is absolutely clear. Occasionally the duo leaves more questions than answers as how the moral compasses should work. And these compasses of course swing in various directions depending on personal circumstances. In 3 Hours, translated by Elizabeth Clark Wessel, as the narration unfolds levels of connections between good and evil, the complexity of characters shines throughout and keeps you on the edge of the seat.

The novel was published by Quercus’ imprint Riverrun in August 2019 (hardback) and October 2020 (paperback).

Our man in Malmö

With a new Skåne County Police commissioner wanting to make his mark in Malmö, the Criminal Investigation Squad is under pressure when they are called in to solve the killing of a private investigator. The nature of the victim’s work throws up some obvious suspects, yet not all is what it seems. When another murder takes place, there seems to be a politically sensitive connection.
Anita Sundström, out of the force for a year after her resignation, is approached by a dying woman to track down a collection of paintings stolen from her family. The paintings were looted by the Nazis in Budapest in 1944. But needing the money, Anita takes on this seemingly impossible task. As she heads off to Hungary, she has no idea of the dangers ahead. This is the eighth mystery in the best-selling Anita Sundström crime series.

Ahead of the publication day for Mammon in Malmö on 6th June 2021, I asked its author Torquil MacLeod to share reflections about his various Swedish connections.

‘It was on a storm-tossed ferry from Newcastle in the middle of December in the year 2000 that we made our visit to Sweden. On arrival in Gothenburg, we took a very slow train down the coast and ended up at a desolate Malmö Central Station at midnight. We were virtually the only people left on the train when we were met by our elder son who had recently moved to Skåne. We drove through deserted streets and the only bright spots were the electric Christmas lights in nearly every window. It wasn’t the most promising of starts, yet it turned out to be the beginning of a great adventure. 

During that first wintry visit, I was captivated by the landscape of Skåne, the southernmost region of Sweden. For part of our sojourn, we stayed in the attractive coastal town of Ystad with a police detective who has become a firm friend and has proved a useful source of information over the years. She worked out of the station, which I discovered some years later was the home of Henning Mankell’s fictional detective, Kurt Wallander.

At the time of our visit, I was interested in writing film scripts and was working on a number of projects with a producer friend. Among the script ideas I came up with were two crime-based dramas set in southern Sweden; one specifically in Malmö. With my screenwriting career going nowhere fast, I decided to dust off an old film treatment, and it morphed into my first novel, Meet me in Malmö.    

Though the central figure, Anita Sundström, was to be a Swedish police inspector, I wanted to give British readers an outsider’s view of the country – my view. The novel was a basic introduction to Sweden, as home-grown Swedish writing – just as crime writing from any other country – assumes a certain degree of local knowledge and cultural understanding in its readers.  In my subsequent Malmö Mysteries, I have attempted to fill in some of the gaps. In doing so, I appear to have become a member of the Scandi-Brit sub-genre of Nordic crime along with Quentin Bates, Michael Ridpath and Will Dean.

I also wanted Anita to be different from many other fictional detectives. Unlike Kurt Wallander, Harry Hole, Morse, Rebus and even Jane Tennyson, she is only one of a team. She’s not running the investigations. She’s only a cog in the machine and has to work within those restrictions. She can’t be the clichéd maverick figure. It’s her role within the team that leads to tensions. 

The other main character in the story is Malmö itself. My son called it home for several years. It’s a pleasant city – particularly in the summer with all its beautiful parks. Much as I enjoyed The Bridge, I was disappointed that the producers deliberately ignored many of the city’s obvious attractions. Malmö is also a cultural melting pot with a large immigrant population. Thanks to the opening of the Öresund Bridge in 2000 linking it to Copenhagen, it has transformed itself from backwater town into cosmopolitan city. This is Anita Sundström’s beat.

I also like to weave aspects of Swedish history into the modern crime mix. In Midnight there was Lenin’s visit to Malmö on his way to Russia and its earth-shattering revolution. Menace featured the eighteenth-century orientalist, linguist and traveller, Jakob Jonas Björnstahl; while Malice covered the large number of child refugees that Sweden took in from Finland during the Second World War. Mourning dealt with the Estonia ferry disaster while my latest book, Mammon in Malmö, looks at Sweden’s contrasting roles in the last war.

My Swedish adventure may have had a rough start but the country now plays a huge role in my life. And the journey has come full circle as I have two wonderful Swedish grandchildren living in Ystad, where it all began.’ 

More information about all eight books can be found here: Torquil MacLeod – McNidder & Grace

Gunnar Staalesen’s Fallen Angels / Falne engler

I’m not going to hide my feelings for Varg Veum. I got to know his habits, good and bad points, ups and downs, and various experiences over the course of several books and films. His appeal is strongly connected to Gunnar Staalesen’s masterful writing, astute observations, huge dose of realism and authenticity, and most importantly compassion that ultimately drives the private detective. Veum that I love would not exist outside his city of Bergen, well, he might but he would have been a different person. For me, and I believe for many other readers, Veum is and symbolises Bergen. Through his eyes I can discover the changes, atmosphere, history. The town’s polished sparkling surface for the international tourists eager to see the fjords and mountains. The mundane ordinary existence and undercurrent of social issues which become too big to be fixed. Beauty and the beast of the place firmly fixed within the Bible Belt of Norway and the stunning incredible landscape of powerful and often harsh nature.

Like Staalesen, Veum’s childhood and teenage years were spent in Nordnes peninsula, part of the city close to the well-known tourist landmark UNESCO-listed Bryggen, a series of Hanseatic heritage commercial buildings, yet totally independent from the rest. In the book the area was referred as Republic of Nordnes, and influenced by the early post-war years, still bearing signs of ravages of the WWII. The close-knit communities, sexual awakenings and turf wars. Although these elements are in the past, many memories remain hidden, some are surprises waiting for the ‘right’ moment to emerge. A funeral of a former classmate might be such an event, when unexpectedly Veum joins his other friend Jacob Aasen, ex-guitarist with the once-famous 1960s rock band The Harpers, now a church organist. The men have not seen each other for more than twenty years. Recollections of childhood days, escapades of adolescence and difficulties of adult life are recurring themes in their conversations which culminate in Jakob asking Veum to find his estranged wife Rebecca. This is not an official job, a favour rather, as Veum realises that their relationship has been problematic over the years. Yet Jacob hopes for Rebecca’s return to the family. What makes is quite sensitive is that she was Veum’s first love. Reminiscences of life that never happened, of missed opportunities make this search both emotionally tricky and poignant.

Apart from this assignment Veum finds himself thrown into the past, through an emotive contemplative and introspective journey through photo album, memories and questions; as well as through the discovery of a horrific recent murder and what he suspects a tragedy going back years.

He feels that something terrible has happened, something that nobody will talk about yet what had consequences akin to the butterfly effect. He suspects that The Harpers’ sudden end to playing and performing in mid 70s must have been connected to a crime. He analyses lives of the band’s members. Arild Hjellestad drank himself to death, Harry Klove died in a traffic accident, and Jan Petter fell off scaffolding at work. When Veum finds in a street a body of the dead Johnny Solheim, the visibly ageing but most prolific and active member of the band, he is first arrested by the police as a suspect. When released from the police station, he begins to consider that three accidental deaths and one stabbing are all murders, part of some twisted plan. Is it revenge? Is it a game? Is it just a series of truly unfortunate incidents in the God’s fearing place?

With confident determined hand and with tenderness and understanding Staalesen steers Varg Veum through ‘childhood is a wound that never heals’ reminiscences, and brutal reality of social issues, horrific experiences of some characters, and vast ocean of his own reflections on life, comprising his parents, tricky relationship with ex-wife, and delicate connection with fifteen-year-old son Tomas. Bergen’s varied music scene and its influences feature strongly, and so does religion and perception of its rigid commandments. The background setting makes the novel alive and pulsating with grief, regret, sorrow, and the fallen misunderstood and abandoned angels. The novel set in 1986 was originally published three years later in Norway but only now is available in English. Don Bartlett, the maestro of Norwegian translation, has worked on several Staalesen’s books and I am confident that their collaboration has been enhanced over the years.

Fallen Angels is both another complex and challenging unofficial investigation by Varg Veum, tinged with sadness and loneliness, and the sensitive portrait of the location, the city and the islands that surround it. A pean to the gone-by era and the influence of the nature and landscape. I particularly enjoyed this paragraph summarising existence from that part of the country:

‘Waiting at ferry terminals is the fate of Vestlanders. No so-journs have left deeper marks in their soul than precisely this. On a wind-blown quay – where there is a hot-dog stall, which is closed, a telephone box where the cable has been yanked out and where the summer ferry timetable is displayed in winter (and vice versa) – lives are shaped. Here, they are on their way out into the world, from home, or on their way home, to weddings or funerals. Here, they accompany their sweethearts to final farewells; here, love-rivals sit in big cars, waiting to take over. Here, they set down their cases and rucksacks, their cardboard boxes of books and photographs, on their way to new life in university towns. Here, they come ashore half drunk after two weeks on the North Sea; here they come home from military service and teacher-training college; here, women arrive with children in their arms and the elderly arrive with walking sticks for their rheumatism after a visit to an urban medical centre. Here, maps are drawn of new paths while old ones are hastily erased. And everyone is waiting for the ferry which is always somewhere in the fjord. Waiting for a ferry is the Vestlander’s lot in life.’

Nordnes peninsula with its ferry terminal

My reviews of the earlier books by Gunnar Staalesen are here: We Shall Inherit the Wind (2015) (Euro Crime pages), Where Roses Never Die (2016) Wolves in the Dark (2017) and Big Sister (2018) (on the Crime Review website).

World Book Day. And Macbeth

Today, 23 April is the World Book and Copyright Day, declared by UNESCO in 1995, a celebration to promote the enjoyment of literature, books and reading, remembering links between the past and the future, a bridge between generations and across cultures. This date is symbolic in world literature as on 23 April several prominent authors, such as William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega all died. In England it’s Saint George Day, and in Catalonia people give books and roses to celebrate its patron saint Sankt Jordi, and love and culture.

Stratford-upon-Avon, 23 April 2016. Krystyna Konecka talks to the Polish TV about her fascination with William Shakespeare and his incredible works

My personal links to the Bard are all about language and poetry. My mum Krystyna Konecka wrote a series of beautiful thoughtful sonnets, full of emotion and insight. I translated Ogrody Szekspira from Polish into English, and a copy of this volume of poems Shakespeare’s Gardens found its place at the Shakespeare Library in Stratford-upon-Avon. We have visited the Bard’s birthplace many times, always discovering new interesting aspects of his life and works, and the atmosphere of quite a unique place.

Here’s the fairly recent Scandinavian link to William Shakespeare in a form of a homage by the bestselling Norwegian author Jo Nesbø.

If you are familiar with Shakespeare’s Macbeth you will know what to expect. If not – brace yourself for the modern retelling of the condemned life. The ongoing Hogarth project proposes to bring all of Bard’s plays as novels for 21st century readers and here we have all the vital elements: cruelty, manipulation and power games, plus darkness of soul and of setting. And above all the political ambition that goes overboard.

Just like in the original, the story is set somewhere in Scotland. The exact location is vaguer. In the country’s most corrupt, lawless and nameless town the geographical and social divisions mean that both poor and rich struggle. The long-term legacy of Kenneth, the previous chief police commissioner who destroyed democracy after running the place with absolute power, left a bleak, almost medieval feel. After his death the virtuous and honourable Duncan is appointed. This offers the hope of better living conditions, new jobs, security, and the end of competition between the local drug lords and the bikers called Norse Riders, led by shrewd Sweno, and the untouchable old man Hecate, also known as the Invisible Hand, his speciality being ‘brew’, which has the same effect as crack cocaine.

Enter thirty-three-year-old Macbeth in charge of a paramilitary SWAT unit whom the idealistic Duncan promotes to the position of the head of Organised Crime. In childhood, Macbeth was for years sexually abused in the orphanage, then addicted to speed. He was crazy, hopelessly lost and lonely until a police officer, Banquo, saved him from life on the street and became his substitute father. Now he is happy to serve the town, and in a relationship with the much older, beautiful but manipulative Lady. He still believes in love and the goodness of people, occasionally swaying into ‘sometimes cruelty is on the side of the good.’ 

The classic villainess Lady, the daughter of an unemployed alcoholic father and a depressive violent mother, was raped when she was thirteen, abandoned and without a roof over her head and had sacrificed her new-born baby to survive. Ruthless and ambitious, she eventually became the owner of the Inverness Casino, and with new opportunities for Macbeth, she demands that he kills Duncan and takes his place. Although initially reluctant, Macbeth does as he is told, convinced initially that he follows fate’s call, but in a twisted reality he’s also being used by Hecate and the three sisters. 

As the events turn more gruesome and Macbeth rules over the town with Lady by his side, his affection for stimulants and then addiction to much more potent ‘power’, the improved drug supplied by Hecate, makes him paranoid. The tragedy keeps unfolding as per the prophecy with no one being safe and with more corruption and violence. Friendships are forgotten, everyone is truly doomed. Macbeth as the chief commissioner is not the hoped-for saviour and in fact the police turn out to be another armed gang.

Inspector Macbeth is the best cop, able to clean up any mess, such as a drug bust turned into a bloodbath. He’s also an ex-drug addict with a troubled past.

Jo Nesbø’s take on Shakespeare’s play brings a new level of despair and desolation. The creator of Harry Hole knows the classic tragedy inside out, utilising many of the original names and retaining some of the hierarchy of the characters, as well as adding a different dimension, suitable to contemporary times. It’s possible to work out that his Macbeth is set in the 1970s. The Scottishness of the atmosphere is still there, though it could easily be any drug-ridden and corrupt northern town. This is a tragedy of moral order on a grand scale, and the tragedy of individuals who have mostly been deeply damaged in childhood and through life.

The translation by Don Bartlett is excellent, especially when Nesbø introduces old-style musings, dripping with blood and menace, and some poetry. But there is also one sentence that made me laugh as it seemed very Elizabethan and infused with some humour. If you find it, you’ll be able to step back and not be distressed by the bleakness and madness of it all.

The review of Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth was originally published on Crime Review Crime Review