Sunday, August 14, 2011
Kjell Eriksson's The Hand That Trembles
I've been a fan of Kjell Eriksson's crime fiction since his first book featuring Uppsala detective Ann Lindell and her colleagues (The Princess of Burundi) appeared in English translation a few years ago. He has a distinctive voice that separates him from most of the Scandinavian crime wave authors and might make his books less likely to be made into TV or theatrical films.
The distinctive quality of his books, very much in evidence in The Hand That Trembles (published recently by Minotaur in Ebba Segerberg's translation), is a what I think of as a "dailiness." These books are not thrillers, they focus on the everyday lives of people (some of them cops) who happen to be involved in crime, in one way or another.
This new novel features several overlapping plots, beginning with the early and recent history of a man who grew up in rural Sweden, near Uppsala, and ultimately shifted from a career as a plumber to one on politics, as a socialist county commissioner. Most recently, he has vanished from Uppsala and reappeared under an assumed name in Bangalore, living a humble life as a gardener and sometime English instructor in a local school. Why he undertook this journey and why he vanished is a major aspect of the story.
Back in Sweden, in a winter that is a radical contrast to Bangalore, Ann Lindell reluctantly takes on the case of a foot discovered along the shore: reluctantly because the site of the discovery is near the home of her former lover, the father of her young son and, and her longing and loneliness are major factors in this book and the series.
During the investigation, she discovers an almost "locked room" situation, a group of houses apart from the mainland, where a few older people and some middle-aged bachelors live, as well as a younger woman who is a painter (and whose hands are among the trembling ones of the title).
Ann is also involved tangentially in the cold case that her former mentor is investigating, as he recovers from brain surgery, the unsolved murder of an old man in Uppsala who turns out to have been a Nazi sympathizer. While the case of the severed foot moves forward slowly but relentlessly (as Ann and a local colleague speak to the "locked room" houses over and over again), the other threads of the book move along in sudden twists and turns, as threads from Spain, India, and Sweden intertwine. Though there's little likelihood of a reader discovering who severed that foot much before Ann does, there are considerable surprises elsewhere in the story.
So The Hand That Trembles is a police procedural, but also a close-up portrait of a group of people as they live through ordinary and extraordinary circumstances, navigating lost opportunities, regrets, longings, and everyday responsibilities. None of them are stock characters, and it's that "dailiness" that is the prime experience in reading the book, transported though we are to a small city in Sweden and a garden in India.
Eriksson's books relate much more closely to the everyday realism of Swedish crime writing that goes back to Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and that is sometimes evident in Henning Mankell's writing, rather than to the thriller writing of Swedish authors from Stieg Larsson to Liza Marklund. Though I enjoy the thrillers, I am myself more drawn to the quieter, more reflective, and more character-driven works by writers like Eriksson.