For some considerable time, cognoscenti of the best in Scandinavian crime fiction have been well aware that Mari Jungstedt’s Inspector Knutas novels are among the most rarefied and satisfying pleasures afforded by the field, and that the Stockholm-based writer has a total command of character and menace. Her books (set on the island of Gotland) are unique in their steady accumulation of minatory atmosphere; what’s more Jungstedt has a fresh take on the traditionally-based utilisation of classic police procedural techniques. In The Killer’s Art, a battered and naked corpse is found in the pretty port town of Visby, hanging upside down from the town’s so-called ‘gate of love’. The body is that of an art dealer, Egon Wallin (hence, perhaps, the bizarre ‘framing’ in the gate), and it falls to the tenacious Inspector Knutas to discover why this very public murder has taken place. The dead man has recently been divorced and has begun a new relationship. Then a painting by a hot new artist is stolen from the murdered dealer’s gallery in Stockholm; is there a connection between the murder and the theft? The investigation leads Knutas into a fascinating trawl through the glittering world of art society, where (the detective is to find) wealth does not remove the need for violent action in the pursuit of an implacable goal.

The Killer’s Art is a classic demonstration of just why Mari Jungstedt is held in such high esteem; in Tiina Nunally’s adroit translation, the prose has a stripped-down, utterly functional quality that is perfectly at the service of the carefully orchestrated plot. Writers such as Henning Mankell may outsell Jungstedt in the UK, but — if there is any justice — she will not remain caviar to the general. As several respected critics throughout the world have noted, her books are the equal of most of her contemporaries (and, in some cases, they are considerably more accomplished).

The Killer’s Art is published by Corgi

The strength of Mari Jungstedt’s novels set on the Baltic island of Gotland have been atmospheric. She conveys the claustrophobic comfort of living in isolation, on an island which is, in effect, a small town. This is highlighted by the contrast between her detective, Anders Knutas, and the television reporter Johan Berg. Knutas is the least depressive of Scandinavian detectives; he is a man happy in his job, his marriage, and his environment—not self-satisfied but not asking more of his Gotland life than it can provide, and seeing in it many of the old virtues of Swedish society. Berg is the big-city outsider, but not in an obnoxious way, and the progress of his romance with a married woman he encounters during an investigation has similarly reflected the attraction of the old-fashioned island life.

Murder doesn’t threaten that life, not even when it’s murder as bizarre as that of an art dealer, who is found hanging from one of the high gates in the old town part of Visby. And in that sense, sadly, this makes The Killer’s Art the least satisfying of the four Knutas novels.

The killing is tied in to an art theft, and into the local history of Gotland, and at times it seems as if it has been chosen because it is an interesting part of local history, and thus provides colour specific to the setting. But it never seems to provide more, much of the action takes place in Stockholm, and important as it is, it has an almost off-stage feel. She moves characters, including Knutas’ working partner, Karin Jacobsen, to Stockholm, but they can’t do much because the secret at the book’s core needs to keet secret, and when a writer has to keep a secret it can become awkward. For example, we know at the book’s start that when the art dealer goes out for an assignation with ‘the person’ (gender non specified) that that person will be another man. Similarly, we know the killer is killing because he has discovered a secret, but as he remains relatively off-stage for most of the book, that secret remains something we canbarely guess at.

And guess wrong, because the secret does turn out to be a shocker. But its impact is diluted somewhat by its late revelation, after the book has changed tone considerably by having Berg’s daughter, Elin, the kidnap victim. It changes the tenor of the book, but also gives it bite. Because the question of Berg’s relationship with Elin’s mother, Emma, which had finally seemed settled (dare one say, boring?) is now unsettled again, hugely. And again, Jungstedt works careful parallels with Knutas, whose calm lifestyle is upset when Jacobsen decides she would rather work full time in Stockholm. Her potential loss throws him into action, and the plan he makes to keep her in Visby sets up conflicts with some colleagues. And of course, raises questions about just why Jacobsen wanted to go, and just why Knutas wants her to stay.

Knutas’ ensemble cast has serious overtone’s of Martin Beck’s, and its tempting to think that Jungstedt realises conflict and the inability to resolve it were the key to that detective’s literary success. Knutas and Berg’s own stories have been the driving force of this series, not the crimes themselves, and perhaps the reason why the crime in this case fails to hold our attention is that this is a transitional book in which the positions of those two men starts to change. That makes this a better book for those who’ve followed the first three, but the fact that we care about such

changes indicates that Jungstedt knows what she is doing.

The Killer’s Art by Mari Jungstedt, Doubleday, £12.99

ISBN 9780385617079

This review first appeared at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets, http://irresistibletargets.blogspot.com

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