Thursday, January 22, 2009

Skuld by Karin Alvtegen

My mother-in-law gave me this crime story when we were visiting for Christmas. She had a pile of books she didn’t want, and I didn’t want most of them either but I did think this one might be okay. Karin Alvtegen is one of Sweden’s more well-known crime fiction writers, but I’d never read anything by her. Skuld is her debut, printed in 1998. As you may or may not have noticed I tend to favour crime fiction from the English-speaking world. Part of the reason is that reading in English is one way to keep the language going, part of it is more irrational – I had had a longish phase of reading certain Swedish writers (Mankell and Guillou) in one go so to speak, and since their books got progressively worse as the series lengthened my enthusiasm faded and rubbed off on all Swedish crime fiction. Also I was sorely disappointed by Liza Marklund's first novel Sprängaren – awful book I thought. And my attempt at diving into the olden goldies and reading some Maria Lang wasn’t terrible successful either – the woman was so productive that quality was varied, to say the least, and I only wanted to read the good ones.

The downside of this then is that I haven’t at all kept up with contemporary Swedish crime fiction, which is a booming business. The upside is that I haven’t at all kept up with contemporary Swedish crime fiction, and I have it all before me. Around Christmas I read in the newspaper that ALT’s latest issue was dedicated to crime fiction, expressed an interest to my husband, whereupon he promptly went out and got it for me. (ALT, Atlas Litterära Tillägg, is a Swedish periodical about literature, published by Atlas publishing house.) There were a whole bunch of good articles in it, but I was especially taken with a conversation between two writers about writing, the genre, fame and so on. I’ve made a mental note now to pick these two up at the library and give them a go.

So back to Karin Alvtegen! First, let's clarify that I'm writing in English because Alvtegen has been translated (although apparently Skuld has not). The cover promises this to be a thriller, and it was. Peter Brolin, a lonely, broken, bankrupt man is sitting in a café when a woman, endlessly yapping, sits down at his table and asks him if he, as part of his job as a private detective, will deliver a package to her husband. Brolin is no detective, and the whole encounter has a night-marish quality to him in his depressed state, but he does it. The “husband”, Lundgren, turns out to be an extremely wealthy businessman – unmarried. And the package contains a cut-off toe. The desperate Lundgren hires Brolin to help him catch the stalker before the situation escalates. There is a twist to the story which I didn’t see coming at all, so for that alone I applaud Alvtegen. Another thing she manages very well is muscling out Brolin’s character. She describes his reclusive and depressed nature and thoughts excellently and movingly. Perhaps I was more susceptible though, since I’m going through a bad patch and just feel like I can relate – but I really felt for poor Brolin. Sadly, Lundgren isn’t at all as full-blooded, and I was never really satisfied with how quickly he befriended Brolin. Despite a perfectly adequate explanation it just doesn’t seem a hundred per cent. Could have done with more time, more padding, to seem believable. Also, it’s a little too easy the way the identity of the stalker can remain undiscovered for so long. I feel we’re expected to skim over that bit too readily, because the author knows it’s a weakness in the plot. I’d recommend this though, and I’ll be reading more of Alvtegen. She shows a genuine interest in the inner workings of a human being that is very appealing. Her writing bears the marking of one who has known genuine pain, and she manages to convey this to the reader. Recommended.

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