Tuesday, January 06, 2009
Swedish crime: Mari Jungstedt's The Inner Circle
The Inner Circle is the third of Mari Jungstedt's series set on Gotland, off the coast of Sweden, featuring detective Anders Knutas (as well as a number of running police characters, a television journalist, and his girlfriend--who was a witness in the first Knutas book but is now only related to the crimes through the journalist). The translation by Tiina Nunnally is graceful and elegant (as always), in a direct language well suited to the material. The novel begins with a sailor witnessing a primitive ritual as his ship passes Gotland, an incident that will be recalled only much later. Then a horse is found decapitated, puzzling everyone, and then a body of a young woman (whose brief career in archaeology we have been following through her eyes) is found hanging naked from a tree. The sensationalism of the events (and the ritual killings) are downplayed by the simple, straightforward style of the narrative, the short chapters, and the commonsense rationalism of the cops. Though it's a bit frustrating to watch how long it takes for the police to grasp what sort of ritual they've been witnessing (after the fact) in the murders, the flatfootedness of the investigation and the narrative save the story from becoming melodramatic or sensational. In fact, the only element of melodrama is a cliff-hanger that suspends one of the running characters (close to death? dead?), a plot element to be resolved in the next book, presumably. Jungstedt evokes here not only the island and its contemporary culture (as she has done in the earlier novels) but also the Viking past (through the archaeology connections to the murders, more than through the ritualized killings--again avoiding sensationalism). We get a good deal of the daily events in the lives of Knutas and the journalist (and his girlfriend--now ambivalent about all that has happened to her, good and bad, in the series so far), anchoring the narrative further in the ordinariness of life. The so-far-translated Swedish crime writers seem to veer toward a real-life plainness of style and plot, even with highly charged material--one of the aspects of Scandinavian crime writing that I most appreciate. There's a bit more local color in Jungstedt's books than in, for example, those of Helene Tursten or even Henning Mankell (I would actually hope in the future for more local color from some of the Swedish writers--Åsa Larsson's Kiruna, for example, is a setting I'd like to hear more about). I'd be hard pressed to rank the writers in the Scandinavian crime wave, but Jungstedt is certainly in the first rank. Less important than the book itself, but still of interest, is the series of covers for the U.S. editions, which are very effective without relying on the "branding" so often the case with series novels (better for once than the U.K. covers, which feature a coordinated set of island scenes).