Like his exceptional debut novel, Echoes From The Dead, Johan Theorin’s story is deeply woven into the landscape of the Baltic island of Oland (in Swedish literally, Island Land), one which is considered unique by the island’s residents (which included my grandmother), and by Swedes in general. It’s not just a sense of setting, as it is in Mari Jungstedt’s novels set on Gotland, the next island to the east. It’s more a sense that the land itself is a force, if not a character, in the story. In his first novel, it was the bleak Alvar, and now it is the equally bleak eastern coast, and the dangerous blizzards, which in the flatness of the island, can take away one’s sense of location, sense of being, with fatal consequences.
In fact, as with the first book, the English title is not a translation of the Swedish. The Darkest Room was called Nattfak, literally Night Blizzard. I can see why the switch was made, though Blizzard Night might have worked better. Oddly enough, Echoes From The Dead might have been a better title for this novel than for Theorin’s first, because the story does indeed involve the dead, as well as the living.It is an incredible mix of ghost story, thriller, and very subtle whodunit. John Connolly proved it possible to integrate ghosts with modern crime stories, but Theorin’s approach is totally his own, because you get a very telling sense that not only are the dead alive on Oland, but that some of the living are half-way, or already dead.
Joakim Westin has joined his wife and two children in an old manor house, built for the twin lighthouses on nearby Eel Point. They intend to redo the house, and are obviously getting away from tragedy in Stockholm. But while Joakim is back in the capital closing the sale of their house, tragedy strikes on Oland. And new policewoman Tilda Davidsson, investigating bulgaries of summer houses, becomes convinced that the tragic death was not an accident. The burglaries are being carried out by an unlikely group of Swedish bad guys, and the manor at Eel Point is a tempting target. Davidsson is a recent graduate of the police college, and is having an affair with one of her instructors; her coming to Oland was a way of forcing the married man into a decision. And most interesting of all, Tilda’s great uncle Gerlof is telling her stories about the old days on the island; readers of the first novel will recognise Gerlof as the amateur sleuth working out of an old-age home.
Theorin not only juggles these stories, but also genres, switching gears wonderfully as the suspense builds up. The real coup is that he resolves them all so deftly; leaving the who-dun-it until you’ve almost forgotten it, and then bringing all the elements together for the solution. Part of the reason it all works is that the elements overlap; the ghosts act upon the people in this world, the victims act on their killers, and the island acts on all of them. It’s a bravura performance.
The translation, by Marlaine Delargy, does an exceptional job of keeping to the simple flow of Swedish prose, while altering the mood and pace as the story switches from haunting to hunting and back. I have a small quibble with the practice of translating simple things to English (metres to feet, Mama to Mummy) when their originals are perfectly comprehensible, but in the face of such smooth switching of suspense gears, Theorin has been incredibly well served. Though they share some qualities, the Darkest Room is a very different book from Echoes From The Dead, but in its own way every bit as successful. Theorin is the new Nordic novelist to watch.
The Darkest Room
by Johan Theorin
translated by Marlaine Delargy
Black Swan £7.99 ISBN 9780552774611
This review first appeared at Michael Carlson’s blog, http://irresistibletargets.blogspot.com