Sunday, December 18, 2011

Johan Theorin, The Quarry

Johan Theorin's third novel to be translated into English (by Marlaine Delargy, for Doubleday U.K.--it's not available in the U.S. yet) is the third novel in a trilogy organized around the seasons and set on the Swedish island of Öland. It's spring on the island and Theorin's running character, Gerlof, is moving out of the assisted living home that he moved into in earlier novels. He's moving back to his cottage near the island's quarry, to live alone but in proximity to an interesting group of the island's part-time, warm(er) weather residents.

Theorin continues here to pull off an unusual structure (for a crime novel at least). Among the Scandinavian crime novels to have appeared in ever larger numbers in English, Theorin's are perhaps the most focused on ordinary people's ordinary lives. There is what I have elsewhere called a "dailiness" about the books, with no hint of criminal conspiracies, international incidents, or big-time mobsters. Yet, on the other hand, there is a supernatural element, also told in the most ordinary way, as if the elves and trolls who are a very palpable presence in this novel are among the ordinary residents of modern Öland.

The other constant in the series (apart from Gerlof, who is in any case not a central character in the novels' mysteries) is the overlay of the past and the present. In The Quarry, it's the past of Gerlof's marriage, the youth of a spring/summer resident of the island, Vendela Larsson, and another part-time resident, Per Mörner. Vendela was raised on the island, but in peculiar circumstances and with frequent interaction (in her imagination at least) with elves who seem to be granting her wishes when she places offerings on a stone with a mysterious presence.

Per's past on the other hand, invokes a subject that was the international profile of Sweden in the 1970s and '80s but as far as I know not the subject of any of the other Scandinavian crime novels to have appeared (at least in translation): the porn industry. It's the decline (for various reasons) of the porn business that provides the tensions that finally shift this novel of ordinary live into high gear thriller territory (at least, almost).

There are many other elements going on in this novel stuffed with ordinary (rather than high pressure) incidents and emotions. Per's daughter is mysteriously ill. Gerlof has found his wife's diaries, which speak of an odd "changeling" who had visited her only when she was alone. Vendela is descending into a dangerous psychological state and is stuck in a marriage with a manipulative egotist. Ordinary lives, but with extraordinary twists.

Theorin is one of the least conventional of all the translated crime writers, and although his books are certainly not everyone's cup of tea (being probably as far from that Tattoo series as it's possible for two series in the same genre to be), his distinctive writing deserves close attention. Some reviewers have expressed some disappointment in The Quarry, given the high expectations that Theorin's first two novels created. I found it to be a valid continuation of the series, with a bit less tense a tone overall, and with a less intense presence of both nature and the supernatural. It's a further development of his style, though, and unfailingly interesting.


Anonymous said...

I have enjoyed all of Theorin's books. I preferred 'Echoes of the Dead' but liked this book very much too. He has an original mind I think and I never feel that I'm rereading old plot lines.

Maxine Clarke said...

Excellent and thoughtful review. I especially like your point about the ordinary people/lives. The things that stand out for me in these novels are just that - Julia's state of mind during Echoes, the way the thieves are caught in Darkest, as to the old people a car driving down the road is a big event.
I was nervous about Quarry as I had enjoyed the previous books so much, but I needn't have worried, I loved it. It isn't the most focused of narratives, but that isn't a negative. I also like the way that I didn't think much of Per or Vendela at first, but gradually came to sympathise with them both a great deal. And Gerlof must be my favourite character in crime fiction!
I think Marlaine Delargy is a very insightful translator.