“How sick can a person get?” So, rightly, wonders a character toward the end of Sweden’s newest entry in the race to claim Stieg Larsson’s throne.
This pseudonymous mystery, the first in a trilogy newly translated into English but published in Swedish in 2010, has been a hit across continental Europe. It’s easy to see why: full of chills and spills, it incorporates numerous hot-button themes, including non-European immigration, extreme-right-wing politics, and slavery, elements of an already dark tale that encompasses incest, genocide, and murder. Add to that a heady brew of shifting identities: a girl flees a dark memory of the Holocaust, abandoning every vestige of the past to become someone new and not altogether wholesome; a psychiatric patient takes on numerous personalities, one of whom is startled to realize, “I’m just a means of survival, a way of being normal, like everyone else.” But everyone else in this story is far from normal: someone is murdering young immigrants from such faraway places as Kazakhstan, former child soldiers from Africa are wandering mad in the streets of Stockholm, and it becomes ever plainer why someone would want to escape the daily grind in the birch and pine woods of the far north by changing masks and dispatching neighbors in spectacular ways. Larsson, of course, covered much of this territory, and even Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö got to some of the unpleasantries in their mysteries of old. Sund updates their scenarios with a well-realized romance between two professional women, a probing look at post-traumatic stress delivered in part by a police inspector who has immigrated north from Bosnia, and many other matters taken straight from the headlines. The story is well-told, though the dramatis personae is daunting thanks in part to all those multiple personalities. It loses momentum about two-thirds of its long way in, too, but it revives as the plot snakes its way into some strange territory indeed.
A smart, rewarding psychological thriller, with an emphasis on both of those genre terms.