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ECHOES FROM THE DEAD
by Johan Theorin and Marlaine Delargy, translator
Delta, November 2008
385 pages
$12.00
ISBN: 0385342217


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

There seems to be an inexhaustible wellspring of crime in Scandinavia, or at least of writers who want to write intelligently and imaginatively about the effects of crime on a community. Perhaps because crime is relatively rare in the Scandinavian countries, and their crime fiction tends to be realistic, many stories focus on cold cases. Johan Theorin now joins the ranks of talented Scandinavian mystery writers and moves right up to the head of the class.

In his debut novel, ECHOES FROM THE DEAD, a woman who has never gotten over the disappearance of her seven-year-old son twenty years earlier is called home to the island of Öland, in the Baltic Sea off the south-eastern coast of Sweden. Julia's father thinks he may have new information about the child. Someone has sent him a child's shoe – apparently a sandal that Jens wore the day he went missing. He and an elderly friend want to find out who sent the shoe, and why. He enlists his daughter in the search even though she's worried about what they may learn. She has never reconciled herself to the idea that the child might be dead.

Interleaved with the present-day events is the story of Nils Kant, a legendary bogeyman of the island, who many people believe lived on in spite of the grave marker that bears his name. He's a chilling character, both simple-minded and cold-hearted, who as a child calmly eats his brother's toffees after watching the little boy slip off a rock and drown. Yet as we learn more about him, he becomes a nuanced, even sympathetic character.

In addition to well-developed characters and a nicely-turned plot, this book offers a compelling sense of place. The island of Öland, once a site of fishing fleets and stone quarries, has become a popular summer destination for wealthy Swedes. In the off-season it is eerily empty, prone to sudden mists, haunted by unsolved mysteries and the lingering fear of Nils Kant, who used to walk across the Alvar, a limestone barren that makes up much of the island.

It's not possible to categorize this novel, smoothly translated by Marlaine Delargy, using the usual labels. Yes, the sleuths are amateurs, but it's not by any definition cozy. At times there are hints of the supernatural, but it's nevertheless grounded in reality. And though a missing child is at the heart of the story, Theorin does not sensationalize the loss nor does he wind up the reader's anxiety and turn the story into an action-based thriller. It simply does what good Scandinavian crime fiction does best – builds a story around an injustice that has had an impact on individuals and on society.

ECHOES FROM THE DEAD was named the best debut work of Swedish crime fiction when it was published last year. We can hope for more of Theorin's work to be translated; his second book recently won the award for best Swedish crime novel of 2008.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, December 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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