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by Åke Edwardson and Ken Schubert, trans.
Penguin, September 2009
297 pages
ISBN: 0143116096

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Aficionados of translated crime fiction can't afford to be compulsive about reading series in order. As happened recently with the Adamsberg series by French author Fred Vargas, the inaugural volume in the Erik Winter series has finally been published in English translation. Though it can be a bit disorienting to have a character who was last seen mulling over the birth of his first child to be suddenly an unmarried young man with a taste for expensive clothes and jazz, this warped chronology is par for the course for readers interested in international crime fiction. The tone of the series is also altered, switching from a British-flavored translation to one that's so American an English detective carries a badge instead of a warrant card.

The plot of this first book in the series also seems younger, like its lead character – or at least less mature than the previously translated works in the series. The hero, who has already been promoted to Chief Inspector – the youngest detective on record to achieve that title in Sweden – is faced with a puzzling case involving young men murdered in a horrific way, their blood drenching the walls of the rooms to which they've been lured, their grisly deaths apparently caught on film, perhaps to be marketed as snuff films. The victims are foreigners – Swedes in London and Londoners in Sweden. Winter works with a counterpart in the UK to find the connections that will unlock the case. Meanwhile, a Swedish colleague is getting in over his head with a beguiling stripper, "Angel," a woman who knows more than she's telling. But the coincidental key to the case may be in the hands of a common thief who has broken into a house and found a sack full of bloody clothes.

Scandinavian detectives are often characterized as depressive or gloomy; Erik Winter is merely remote and contemplative. What action there is often pauses as he ponders existential issues. As detectives gather to discuss the case, he has a philosophical moment in the tiled hallway of police headquarters. "For most of the year, noises that made their way in from the street bounced dissonantly off the walls. Now they just rolled by like loosely packed snowballs. A circle of silence surrounds everyone and everything, Winter thought."

The best of Scandinavian crime fiction does what Chandler urged writers to do: give murder back to people who commit it for a reason, often a reason so mundane it offers us a chance to reflect on the social mechanisms that underly criminal acts. The friction of social critique that warms many Nordic mysteries and animates its tired, bewildered detectives is missing here. Like Erik Winter's expensive suits, the lurid story is clothed in an elegant narrative style, but Edwardson holds the reader at arm's length. There's something aloof and unengaging in the series and its hero. In the final analysis, Erik Winter is likely to leave many readers cold.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, October 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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