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THE DARKEST ROOM
by Johan Theorin and Marlaine Delargy, trans
Delta, September 2009
448 pages
$15.00
ISBN: 0385342225


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

A popular television reality series followed the misadventures of people trying to build a new life in the country by renovating a sagging farmhouse or dilapidated barn. Joakim Westin and his wife Katrine would seem to be suitable subjects for an episode except that usually the worst that the TV renovators had to deal with were unreliable builders and rising damp. Joakim should be so lucky. Shortly after he moves into the house in Íland, an island in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Sweden, his wife is dead and he is left to care for his two very small children and to contend with his loss, his grief, and the growing suspicion that the place is haunted.

At about the same moment, policewoman Tilda Davidsson has been re-assigned at her request to the island, where she has family ties. She is, incidentally, the great-niece of Gerlof Davidsson, who, you may recall, was the grandfather of the boy who disappeared in Theorin's first novel, ECHOES FROM THE DEAD. She's trying to get over a failed relationship with her instructor from the police college and an abrupt break with the past seems like a good idea. She's a community police officer in a community where crime seems rare and largely confined to the usual drugs and break-ins. As she is to discover, there is a three-man crime wave under way, though, compared to crime in the bigger towns and cities, their activities appear relatively minor.

The narrative proceeds at a leisurely pace with the contemporary chapters interspersed by ones set at various times in the past, moments when something really bad happened at Westin's new home at Eel Point. It may be that the house is cursed, built as it was of timbers from a wrecked cargo ship in which the crew all perished many years ago. It may simply be a question of the local folklore building up over time around a house that has been frequently empty. It is certainly true that there has been a number of premature deaths associated with the place, perhaps more than the law of averages would account for. Further light is cast as Tilda, in an exercise in familial piety, interviews Gerlof about the past and about his brother Ragnar, who was one of those who perished prematurely at Eel Point.

This is a difficult book to classify. For most of the way, it hardly seems to be crime fiction, as there does not appear to be a crime that needs redress. Instead it seems to be a study in patterns of family relationships over the generations or a treatment of mourning and regret in a man who is so frozen in grief that he is difficult to feel much for. As in his first novel (for which Theorin recently won a CWA Dagger), Theorin seems more interested in building an atmosphere than in driving toward a fictional climax. But then all changes in the final section of the book, when a great deal happens violently and quickly in the midst of a blinding snowstorm.

Reactions to this book will vary to the degree that the reader is sympathetic to what appears to be the developing Swedish national style of crime fiction and able to tolerate a painstaking and meticulous development of character and scene unleavened by either humour or action. In short, this is a novel that requires a degree of patience on the reader's part. I am not certain that the patience is altogether repaid by the final revelations. Although the various plot lines converge at the finale and all outstanding questions appear to be resolved, the rush to a conclusion seems arbitrary in light of the leisurely pace of the preceding four-fifths of the novel.

The translation into American English by Marlaine Delargy is serviceable and fluent, marred only rarely by the occasional unidiomatic turn of phrase.

THE DARKEST ROOM was named the Best Swedish Crime Novel in 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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