Book of the week : Midwinter Sacrifice - Mons Kallentoft

Lately, there’s been a veritable spate of new Scandinavian crime fiction authors who seem to be just popping out of the woodwork and riding the Steig Larsson wave, and Mons Kallentoft, author of Midwinter Sacrifice, is one of the best

Detective Malin Fors lives in the Swedish city of Linköping with her young, 13-year-old daughter Tove.  On a freezing cold morning, temperature minus 30, Malin and her partner arrive at the scene of a brutal crime: a man hangs from a tree, noose around his neck, savagely beaten and finished off with a knife.  He hadn’t hanged himself; it was obvious that whoever murdered him had left him there.  He is identified as Bengt Andersson, a loner unable to work due to mental health issues. He’s one of those eccentric guys that everyone makes fun of; or who some see as a target for harassment;  a man who loved waiting outside the fence at the local soccer field so he could retrieve balls that came his way.  Once he is identified, the investigation begins in earnest.  There are different theories of the crime, but the first clue the detectives uncover is a rumour that as a boy, Andersson had put an axe into his father’s head.  Just who was Bengt Andersson, and what kind of person was he that someone would unleash so much violence against him?

While Fors is busy with the case, she’s also busy trying to look after her daughter as Tove moves from a little girl into a teen with her own secrets and her own life. She’s an intriguing and complex heroine – she’s tough, has had serious problems in her marriage and is now divorced. She also has a problematic relationship with her daughter, and tends to drink too much. She is mostly unbalanced and on the edge. She is, if you like, a blend of Nordic detectives: one part Irene Huss, one part Inspector Winter and one part Harry Hole. She is talented, ambitious, tough, smart and unpredictable

The plot is solid and credible, and although the Kallentoft offers a great deal of Malin’s personal life in the telling of this story, it isn’t overdone to the point where the core mystery or the investigation is drowned out by too much extraneous home-life information or interior monologue. Throughout the entire book, a chill seeps through the skin of the reader — not just in terms of the freezing winter, but in the uncovering of some of the more awful secrets that exist behind the closed doors of a small town, producing a darkness in tone that rarely lets up.  And this wouldn’t be Scandinavian crime fiction without bringing in the social and economic issues plaguing these small towns as well, only adding to the atmosphere

The voice of the dead man crops up throughout the story.  Malin was once told by one of her bosses:

An investigation consists of a mass of voices, the sort you can hear, and the sort you can’t. Our own, and others. You have to listen to the soundless voices, Malin. That’s where the truth is hidden.”

And it’s true that the dead speak — normally, with the clues that are left behind, or in their victimology in general.  In Midwinter Sacrifice , Kallentoft takes it a step further, so that the victim in this case serves as a sort of a Greek chorus, a foreshadower of events to come, a device to move the story forward.  While it works here it will be interesting to see if this deadspeak becomes a standard feature in the rest of the series.  Second, although the killer’s voice is heard as well in monologue,  not a new device by any means, sometimes it was a bit overwrought in tone and I felt it could have been scaled back some. My issues here are based on personal taste, so it’s a matter of your own comfort zone.

Kallentoft is an outstanding writer and Midwinter Sacrifice is a good police procedural with characters that need a bit more fleshing out but which are pretty well drawn for a first series installment.  The translation flowed — there were no awkward moments here whatsoever to cause any sort of pause.  If you’re cool with dead men thinking out loud, then the only other thing that might give you pause is the ending, which NMTBP won’t go into — suffice it to say it may leave some readers scratching their heads.

Overall, Midwinter Sacrifice is a fine series opener and NMTBP looks forward to meeting Malin Fors again soon

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January 23, 2012

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