by Helene Tursten
translated by Katarina Emelie Tucker
Published by Soho Crime
368 pages, 2006
by Åsa Larsson
translated by Marlaine Delargy
Published by Delacorte Press
310 pages, 2006
Swede and Lowdown
Reviewed by Caroline Cummins
Ever since Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö turned 1960s Stockholm into a cool, gray home for the police procedural, Swedish crime writers have done well by setting competent cops against -- in no particular order -- the forces of evil and the modern world. Two current writers from this Scandinavian country are living up to that tradition.
The second installment of Helene Tursten's Inspector Huss crime series to appear in English, The Torso matches its predecessor, Detective Inspector Huss (2003), in tone and quality. The placidly middle-class cops of Göteborg, Sweden, are still busy trying to maintain peace on the streets and in their homes, and the latest round of strange death -- in this case, a tattooed torso washed up on a beach -- is just one job among many. But as before, things quickly spiral out of control. The torso leads to Denmark, the sex industry, the gay underworld and many more bodies -- not to mention a personal threat that leaves Huss, for the first time, eager for revenge.
Detective Inspector Irene Huss is still the harassed, 40-something cop whose loyalties are divided between her beloved job and her equally adored husband and teenaged daughters. She lives in a cozy, well-fed world of normality and works in a harsh, demanding environment of death and danger. She has no patience with fellow cops who drink on the job or let stress ruin their health; at the same time, she finds it tough to draw a line between her private and public lives. When the daughter of a friend turns up dead, murdered in the same way as the tattooed torso, Huss has to restrain herself from going on the warpath.
Author Tursten does not shy away from the grim and grisly; her first Huss book featured violent skinheads and bikers, while The Torso focuses on sexual predation, necrophilia and dismemberment. Huss has seen it all, but doesn't understand or condone much of it; in response to a Danish colleague, joking in front of a sex shop, she snaps, "There is no casual sex in this display window." She has a great deal of sympathy for the troubled gay men she meets in the course of The Torso, but she cannot forgive them the sin of hurting other people, emotionally or otherwise.
Thus it's still a surprise that Huss doesn't worry overmuch about placing herself in harm's way (she was attacked in her first novel), or her family (attacked in this one). Her guilt, instead, is over the death of her friend's child, and the retribution she wants to exact for it. In precise detail, Tursten shows the police getting their own kind of vengeance, building up a case against their prime suspect DNA sample by DNA sample. But when, at the end, their methodical method is sabotaged by someone with equal vengeance in mind, Huss reacts quietly. She can't condone the way the case turned out, but for once, she can understand it.
Åsa Larsson, a bestselling author in her native Sweden, has written two crime novels that are making a rapid transition to English. Her first, Sun Storm, is a fast-paced thriller featuring Rebecka Martinsson, a clear stand-in for Larsson herself: a Stockholm tax lawyer from frosty northern Sweden. Martinsson is a reserved, solitary workaholic who picks up the phone early one morning at her office, only to hear a voice from the past. A charismatic young preacher in the birch-dappled north has been found dead in his church, and his sister, Martinsson's former roommate, is begging for help.
Purple though this story might be -- the preacher, mutilated in fearsome fashion, had started a cult, and whispers of sexual deviation are everywhere -- Larsson gets her snowball rolling from the book's first page and doesn't let up until she's built a solid, if slightly ludicrous, snowman of a novel. Her strength is her reliance on the culture of small-town northern Sweden: the terrible winter cold, the ubiquitous snowmobiles, the fishtailing cars, the sausages and mashed potatoes favored for dinner. Sun Storm is a portrait of a town dominated by a successful church, where the outcast come to be saved and, sometimes, to prey.
Larsson does best with her everyday characters: Martinsson, the hapless sister, the wind-tossed preacher, the pregnant detective, the people who understand that not much remains hidden in small towns. She reveals her murderer too soon and too suddenly, and relies too much on the gruesome, choosing a pathological outsider as her villain. Apart from this grim bit of Hollywood, however, her frozen milieu holds up well. At the end, like a 1950s serial, she promises that Martinsson will return. And since her next book, The Blood Spilt, is due out in an English translation in a year, we'll soon get to see what shenanigans Larsson has lined up for her. | June 2006
Caroline Cummins is a contributing editor of January Magazine.