“The Boy in the Shadows” by Carl-Johan Vallgren and “Britt-Marie Was Here” by Fredrik Backman

The Boy in the Shadows“Fun fact: there were 87 murders in the entire country of Sweden last year. Or approximately 2.5 million less than in Swedish crime novels,” comedian Greg Poehler (an American expat living in Sweden) wrote on Twitter recently. It turns out that figure is actually for 2014—I was unable to find statistics for 2015, but the point stands. Sweden is a relatively safe country, and Swedish authors love to murder hordes of people.

I was previously unfamiliar with Carl-Johan Vallgren, but when I looked him up online, I noticed that his novel The Boy in the Shadows had been published in Sweden under the pen name Lucifer. (He has written numerous works of literary fiction under his real name.) That devilish pseudonym seemed to promise mayhem and murder, and that’s what Vallgren delivers in his first crime thriller.

The book begins in 1970, when young Kristoffer Klingberg is kidnapped in a Stockholm subway station. Years later, his brother, Joel Klingberg, disappears, and his wife Angela enlists an old friend who served with Joel in the military, Danny Katz, to find her missing husband. Katz is an ex-junkie who now works as a translator, but Angela is convinced Danny is the only man she can trust. Not surprisingly, the modern-day crime has ties to the unsolved disappearance of Joel’s big brother many decades ago.

The Boy in the Shadows has a rich, powerful family at its core that may remind fans of Swedish thrillers of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s Vanger clan. But while Tattoo sent its hero to the fictional Hedeby Island, a couple hours north of Stockholm, Danny Katz winds up looking for answers in the much-further-flung Dominican Republic… though only after a whole lot of people have met their grisly ends in Sweden.

Boy is one of those books where people peripheral to the story die by the score, but the important characters prove diabolically hard to kill. Since a sequel (Svinen, or “The Swine”) has already been published in Sweden, it looks like Lucifer’s diabolical career is just getting started. Fans of antiheroes and pitch-black noir will want to give Vallgren’s series a try, but I found it a little too hardboiled for my tastes.

Britt-Marie Was HereAmerican readers are learning that there’s more to Swedish fiction than mutilated corpses and dysfunctional, damaged sleuths. Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove has become a runaway bestseller (it’s currently in the New York Times top 10), and the follow-up, Britt-Marie Was Here, was just published in the U.S. A Man Called Ove managed the neat trick of being both utterly heartwarming and bracingly unsentimental; Britt-Marie strives for the same tone, but I felt it fell a bit short of Backman’s debut.

Despite the fact that the author is in his 30s, he seems to have carved out a niche as a chronicler of cranky, overly fastidious seniors. Britt-Marie is 63 and has just left her philandering husband following his heart attack (he survived, but the fact that the incident brought his affair, which Britt-Marie seems to have tolerated for years, out into the open was unforgivable). She goes to the unemployment office in search of her first job, but the only thing available for a woman of her age and experience is managing a soon-to-close recreation center in the backwater village of Borg.

Borg is a down-on-its-heels community that has lost its supermarket, drugstore, school, health care center and just about everything else, except for a pizzeria and the doomed rec center. Despite the fact that Britt-Marie seems thoroughly unpleasant—she seems to care more about organized cutlery drawers and clean windows than people—the remaining citizens of Borg gradually rally around her, especially when she gets involved with a youth soccer team. (Soccer is very important in Borg.) If you think this is one of those stories where everything leads up to the Big Game, well, you’d be right, though Backman takes his tale in several unexpected directions along the way.

Britt-Marie is given a rather tragic backstory and it’s obvious she’s lived a sad, wasted life, looking after a pompous ass of a man and two unappreciative stepchildren. By the end of the book, I felt like my heartstrings were being plucked a little too aggressively, and I began to resent it. Or maybe I just felt bad about the fact that Britt-Marie would most certainly disapprove of the state of my cutlery drawer?

The most fascinating thing to me was something that was seldom made explicit in the book: the ethnic makeup of the villagers. With a few exceptions, like Sven the policeman, I got the sense that they were mainly Arabs or Africans—there are references to bearded men in caps and the children have names like Omar and Vega. Are there really Swedish towns in the middle of nowhere (as opposed to suburbs like Husby and Tensta) that are primarily made up of immigrants and refugees, people left behind by economic recessions and written off by government bureaucrats sitting in offices far away? Would this be something so unsurprising that a sheltered woman like Britt-Marie would not even feel the need to comment upon it? Now that would make for an interesting book.

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