Mama’s gone crazy, daddy’s gone crazy, and Smith (Child 44, 2008) has skipped over from Stalin’s Russia to the idyllic Swedish countryside for his latest thriller.
The change of scene puts Smith squarely atop territory claimed by Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and other masters of Scandinavian mayhem. Smith, who has family ties to Sweden, works a customarily Nordic twist, too, by setting family members at one another’s throats—and quite unnicely, too. A frantic email (“Nothing else, just my name, an exclamation mark”) alerts Daniel to the fact that something is rotten across the North Sea, where Mum has been parked in a hospital while Dad mutters worriedly about her declining mental faculties. Ah, but Mum, who turns up in London, having fled, may not be loony at all. Indeed, she has a bag full of notes about Dad’s late-blooming nefariousness: “In this satchel,” she intones, “is some of the evidence I’ve collected over the summer.” Evidence of what? Well, out among the cornflowers and hollyhocks, a corpse, maybe more than one, might just lie, for Dad has a kinky, hidden side. Meanwhile, Mum is old-school enough to believe that the fairy-tale world of trolls and goblins lies on the edge of the forest, though her hypotheses about the teenage girl who’s gone missing from their bucolic farm town have an eminently practical side. Smith does creepy very well, setting scenes that slowly build in intensity, and he keeps readers guessing about who can and cannot be trusted. He also has a knack for finding the ominous in the picturesque, so a candlelight procession of “women dressed in bridal white” turns into a backdrop for a discovery that Daniel isn’t quite prepared to make. And, it being Sweden, even bad guys and red herrings are neat, orderly and eminently polite: “It wasn’t enough for Håkan to attack me,” notes Daniel. “He wanted my permission to do so.”
They’re resourcefully lethal as well. A satisfying mystery on ground that, though familiar, manages to yield surprises in Smith’s skillful telling.