Posted by: flexiblegoat | November 19, 2009

Echoes from the Dead: Johan Theorin

Echoes from the Dead

Wow! I started reading this at 8PM last night, finished it 10 minutes ago. It’s won a couple of awards, Best First Crime Novel by the Swedish Academy of Crime and the CWA John Creasy (New Blood) Dagger 2009 (same, deal first book), and deservedly so.

It begins quite slowly, truth be told, takes around 100 pages of the paperback edition to kick in, but the author uses this downtime to lay out some effective descriptions of scenery and soul-sapping  existential situations; leaves swirling on pavements forming a pattern that may well tell a story, the ghostly voices trapped in automated telephone systems. These tend to drop off once the action gets going, which is a bonus: you want to know they can do it, but you don’t want it to hold you up once you’ve caught the scent.

The plot may owe a little to Stieg Larsson’s first novel. While there is a policeman involved, he’s not the prime mover in the investigation; the mystery is based on an island and concerns a long dead child whose body has never been found and a relative (mother in this case) who can’t accept that they’re almost certainly dead.

A probable perpetrator is pinned up on the board right from the start, and the novel switches between his story (1940 onwards) and the ‘present-day’ (mid-nineties). No hardened crime enthusiast is going to take this at face value, and the author very skillfully develops his character so that two-thirds through you can’t quite believe he was capable of it even though no plausible alternative scenario has yet been sketched. I often find I get frustrated by novels with multiple narrative strands because there’s one that interests me and one or more that I have to plough through to get back to that storyline, but this wasn’t the case here, perhaps because the ‘flashback’ sections are short and to the point.

The standout character here has to be the grandfather of the dead child. 80-odd, stuck in a home, can’t walk without assistance, but desperate to find the truth, partially, he admits to himself towards the end, so he can stand up in front of the whole town and show how smart he is. The way in which he personifies the disease that limits his mobility – Sjögren’s syndome because Sjögren, his “companion” – doesn’t seem particularly original, but it works and adds depth to his character. One annoying habit he has is an insistence on keeping his cards close to his chest, but his daughter seems to find it grates just as much as the reader might: she shares the irriation and it does add to the suspense, though I, who cannot help but blab what’s on my mind, find this tendency closer to plot-device than believable character trait. Anyway, there seems to be a huge number of pensioners doddering about interrogating other pensioners, and there’s something rather entertaining about that. Theorin also manages to conjure an incredibly spooky ghost, which, for a moment, you think has actually gone so far as to push a central character down a stone staircase.

On this evidence, Theorin is something of a master plotter. You get some answers easy, then there’s a bolt from the blue, you feel pretty satisfied for a couple of pages, and then comes a twist thats turns your head upside down and tears your heart out. I may not be the best there is at guessing these things (I’m not at all), but I never even thought there would be a further development by that stage, I thought that was it, all tied up with string, but no… I take all my hats off to anyone who nails this one. But, and I think this is key, I don’t think I’d have felt short-changed if it hadn’t been included. It’s like a bonus, an exquisite cherry on top. Marvellous, marvellous book. Black Swan, £7.99.

NOTE: The reviews on this blog, of which this is the first, will be marked, unless I decide this is a bad idea, by a stubborn refusal to outline or summarise plots except in the vaguest, most general way possible. They will therefore be incredibly subjective.

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