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by Asa Larsson and Marlaine Delargy, translator
Delta, August 2008
400 pages
ISBN: 0385341016

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

A man ice fishing on a lake in northern Sweden is caught up short when he steps outside and his shelter is blown away in a fierce wind. He manages to break into a nearby ice fishing house, but is chilled to discover a woman's frozen body there, hidden under a pile of blankets. Even more disturbing, the police soon realize she was tortured - the fact that the skin around one ankle is charred and she had chewed her own tongue to pieces suggests an electric current played a role.

Inspector Anna-Maria Mella first has to learn who the woman is before she can work out what led to her death. She is helped by Rebecka Martinsson, recently released from a psychiatric ward after suffering a breakdown following the traumatic events in the previous novel in the series, THE BLOOD SPILT. Rebecka has taken a position with the prosecutor's office, finding solace in long hours of work. Her talents at untangling business records comes in handy. They soon learn that the dead woman was an officer in a prominent mining company run by a man who was born in their northern city of Kiruna. Rebecka is curious about the fact that the mining company has recently shifted from buying and selling concessions to developing mines in a troubled corner of Africa. Is the woman's murder connected somehow to the political upheaval there?

As in the two previous books in the series, Larsson develops her characters fully. In addition to the detective team and Rebecka, the reader gets to know the head of the mining company, who was raised under difficult circumstances and scrabbled to the top through a combination of determination, risk-taking, and hard-headed pragmatism. We get to know his two associates, a brother and sister who have attached themselves to a rising star. We get to know Ester, the businessmanís peculiar half-sister, a mixed-race woman raised in a Sami community by an adoptive family. She had been an accomplished artist but now fills her time lifting weights and running an outdoor course through the woods blindfolded. Her role in the story only becomes clear in the dramatic conclusion.

Until the climactic scene the story builds steadily, each step brings the investigative team a little closer to a solution, with the reader slightly ahead of the police, informed by the narrative excursions into the point of view of various characters. But the denouement unfolds with the rapid cuts of an action film. The preposterousness of the events is uncomfortably balanced against Larsson's undeniable skill in developing nuanced and complex characters who, even under heavy gunfire, remain stubbornly three-dimensional. But only the reader who clings to the emotional trajectory of the characters and isn't distracted by the Hollywood special effects will make it through the grand finale with suspended disbelief intact.

Larsson is a talented writer, but some of her stylistic signatures are grating. She flips from past to present tense constantly, often within the same paragraph. The balance between character development and plotting is out of whack. And sometimes the characters arenít internally consistent; Rebecka Martinsson is an intelligent woman wrestling with difficult challenges, yet she succumbs to a crush and is reduced to girlish dithering over a man. All that said, Larsson has a definite gift for developing intriguing characters and putting them in dramatic situations that draw out their complexity. The strengths of her writing outweigh the flaws, but one can't help wondering how much more she could accomplish if her confidence were matched by a more rigorous control of the material.

The translation by Marlaine Delargy is transparent and smooth. Also noteworthy is the design of the US edition by Glen Edelstein, with the initial page of each chapter laid against a moody backdrop of tangled tree branches. The effect is elegant.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, August 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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