While enjoying the swaying palms and tropical breezes of our recent vacation in Hawaii, I read one mystery book about “the surfing detective”, which was sort of fun, but a couple of books that evoked a much different climate – the cold, unforgiving landscapes of Scandanavia and Iceland – made a much greater impression on me.
In “The Darkest Room”, Johan Theorin follows up his very successful and engaging “Echoes From The Dead” with another mystery set on the desolate Swedish island of Öland. The back of the book promotion suggested that this was another crime novel, perhaps even a sequel.
In a way, “The Darkest Room” is both and neither. Whereas I’d qualify “Echoes From the Dead” as a crime mystery, this book is actually more of a ghost story with a crime-novel subplot. In it, a young family buys an old seaside manor house. (Seriously, what’s better than a cold, windswept, isolated creepy old mansion with its own haunted lighthouse?) Soon after, a tragedy occurs and the mystery (and its connection to the house’s past) is set into motion. The plot of the book builds slowly, mirrored by a slowly encroaching winter storm, and steadily to a page-turning finale.
Theorin does a very good job of distinguishing this book from “Echoes From the Dead” – the locale is the same and you run into a couple of familiar faces – which is comforting in a way – but the story is driven by new and richly rendered characters who come complete with their own strong traits and flaws. The supernatural elements are presented subtly and in a way that adds to the creep-out factor which spikes to goose bump-inducing range in several instances.
If this was a 10-point scale, I’d give this book a 9. In goodreads’ 5-point scale I’m going to give it 5 of 5, with the only slight dink due to the resolution of the mystery, which felt a little quick. Overall, though a great genre-blending book that I highly recommend.
The other book was “Jar City” by Arnaldur Indridason, which is much more of a classic crime-mystery novel. The book features the hard-bioled detective Erlendur Sveinsson. Erlandur is a great character and just the type of inspector you expect to be working crimes in cold (and rainy in this book) Reykjavik.
This was the first in this series that I’ve read (the English translations of his first couple are hard to come by) and I very much enjoyed it. Erlendur and his team are called in to investigate the murder of an older man in his apartment. It quickly becomes apparent that the murder is not one of a robbery gone bad, but is linked to a series of crimes a generation ago as well as to the deaths of several children.
As a scientist, it was fun to see the effort to genetically characterize the Icelandic population (as a small and relatively isolated island population, Icelanders are prime candidates for multi-generational genetic testing) come into play – and in a scientifically valid way.
Indridason plays the mystery out like cards from a deck, keeping the pacing taut and constantly moving – revealing some things along the way and keeping others in the dark. The characters are engaging – especially Erlandur and his team, who you get to know a little personally, too. Very solid novel and I look forward to reading more from the series.
So — again — what is it about these books that's so appealing?
It doesn’t take a long look at my book list to see that I’ve read a lot of Nordic mysteries over the past couple of years – and I wonder why that’s so. Why there? I tried one from Spain and thought it was so-so. And I haven’t read that many located here in the US – that didn’t have a dog as a narrator. But Sweden, Norway, Iceland? Sign me up. And judging from the popularity of Steig Larsson’s “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” series, I’m not the only one that feels this way.
Perhaps, Scandanavia represents a mirror of America and western society – one that is not so (at least in these books’ world) so celebrity and reality-tv obsessed. Less crowded, these countries seem grittier – “real”er, perhaps – one where a single person can still make a difference and isn’t much like our own very pundit and media driven society.