Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A new Swedish noir-policier-mystery

Åsa Larsson runs a big risk with her new (new in English anyway) The Blood Spilt, the sequel to last year's Sun Storm (which I reviewed at the time). Like the earlier book, Spilt deals with a damaged lawyer from Stockholm who returns to her family home in Kiruna, in the far north of Sweden, near Finland and Lappland (the Lapps call themselves Sami now). And like the previous novel, this one begins with and centers upon the murder of a priest. The risks that Larsson runs are in simply duplicating the plot of a successful crime novel, in becoming pigeon-holed as the author of "religious noir" or some such thing, and in creating a sense that she is simply repeating herself, with nothing else to say. But Rebecka Martinson, the damaged Stockholmer in both books, is changed now, changed by the experience of the first book (not so common in series novels). She is poised at the precipice of a new life (and she's pretty negative about her old one). The priests, too, are very different--the founder and central preacher in an evangelical cult in the first, the parish priest in the Swedish national church in the second (as in England, the king of Sweden embraced Protestantism and created a national church, Lutheran in Sweden's case, but unlike in England the church has lost its government subsidy--one of the topics of The Blood Spilt. It is as if Larsson set out to show that it's not only the far fringes of organized religions that foster rivalry and hatred. On that subject, one of the comments I've had on this blog asked whether the Swedes are obsessed with religion, given the number of crime novels translated from Swedish dealing with the subject. Like most of Europe, Sweden is almost completely secular--but there are two strains of religion (those in Larsson's two books) that go back over a hundred years--the conformist and the nonconformist or fundamentalist. And in rural or small-town Sweden (the setting for Larsson's novel as well as those by Mankell that deal with religion, including the first with Linda Wallander as a main character), religion is far more important than in the cities, as is true in other developed countries. But back to Larsson, The Blood Spilt is in several ways better than its predecessor--the collective aspect remains (the point of view, always in the third person but focusing on an individual's perspective) shifts between Rebecka, the two cops who carry over from the first book, and several townspeople in the circle around (or in opposition to) the murdered priest--who is in this case not only a woman minister, not so rare in Sweden but not entirely embraced by the townspeople, but also a feminist. The Blood Spilt is more of a feminist novel, in fact, than any other recent crime novel that I can think of (that's a positive assesment, not a criticism). Larsson's novel is very atmospheric, regarding a small town in the far north as well as the enclosed world of this particular small town on its own and as it represents small town life everywhere. There are no absolutes here, in spite of the liturgical "mcguffin" of the book: neither the townie nor the villagers have the high ground, neither the irreligious nor the pious, neither the villagers nor the wolf (herself a central character). The novel is primarily texture and ambiguity, in fact--the plot moves forward glacially (again, that's not a criticism--it progresses like another Swedish book I admire, Kerstin Ekman's much longer and more oblique Blackwater. Larsson measures up to the ammbitions of Ekman's literary crime novel, without sacrificing the pleasures of the more direct (and shorter) genre of crime fiction. I may have some more to say about The Blood Spilt as I mull it over, and if anyone wants more of a plot summary let me know. Suffice it to say that it's a novel savored with pleasure rather than read at breakneck pace in an attempt to get to the final resolution.

1 comment:

Naftali said...

I'm a relative new-comer to the Swedish crime novel, but have noticed the central role of religious fundamentalism in two recent works: Larsson's *Sun Storm* and Menkel's *Before the Frost*. Could anyone tell me if the authors are responding to a particular phenomenon in Sweden? Is the nation undergoing a religious “revival”? If so, what other authors are worrying the religious angle? Or has this simply always been an element in their culture (I am thinking perhaps of Bergman's films)?

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