“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.

“The Room” by Jonas Karlsson

The RoomBjörn, the narrator of Jonas Karlsson’s satirical novel The Room, has just started a new job at the Authority when he makes a discovery. “It was a fairly small room. A desk in the middle. A computer, files on a shelf. Pens and other office equipment. Nothing remarkable. But all of it in perfect order. Neat and tidy.”

The only “remarkable” thing about the room seems to be that none of Björn’s co-workers know it’s there, despite the fact that it’s located “round the corner, past the toilets.” The room becomes Björn’s special place to unwind; it even features a full-length mirror which makes him look a little more attractive than usual.

In a recent appearance at the Bay Area Book Festival, Karlsson said The Room was inspired by an experience he had at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, where he is a company member. Sitting in the wings, waiting to go onstage, he imagined a secret room, perhaps one where the theater’s onetime managing director, Ingmar Bergman, would spend private moments writing in a notebook.

The Room may be written by a Swede (albeit one who admits he’s never worked in an office), but the character of Björn will probably remind viewers of NBC’s “The Office” of the character Dwight Schrute: he feels superior to most of his colleagues, certain that he is the most efficient and hardest working person in his department. A receptionist who doesn’t respond to his awkward advances must be “a junkie… Being taken in by the surface appearance of a drug user was one of the dangers of being an open, honest person.” His co-worker Håkan must have “a hidden agenda… His hair, his sideburns, his scruffy jacket; it all suggested a set of values different from the ones that we in the department live by.”

At just under 200 pages (with 65 chapters), The Room is a brief, breezy read, fun but relatively insubstantial. At his Book Festival talk, Karlsson responded to an audience member who wondered if he would ever turn to writing crime fiction (he’s Swedish, after all!). He said that while his publisher would probably love that, he doesn’t plan to try his hand at the genre. Still, The Room does have a “mystery” at its core: does Björn’s sanctuary actually exist, or is it all in his mind? If he continues to spend time there, will his co-workers assume he’s crazy, which could turn into an H.R. nightmare?

Björn may sometimes be hard for the reader to sympathize with, but upon finishing the book, I suspect most of us will wish we had a room like his: a secret place where upon entering, you suddenly become much more productive, serene and even better-looking.

“Italian Shoes” by Henning Mankell

Italian Shoes by Henning MankellIn approximately 99.9% of mystery novels, a murder occurs—or, perhaps, several murders. But most mysteries aren’t really about death. The fact that a human being is gone forever, the impact that a death has on the survivors, is often downplayed in favor of the whodunit puzzle. (In many crime novels, particularly on the cozy end of the spectrum, the victim is shown to be a horrible person, to lessen our guilt about consuming death as entertainment.)

A couple of years ago, William Kent Krueger won every major mystery award (deservedly so, in my opinion) for Ordinary Grace, a novel that dealt frankly and openly with the grief and loss that follow in the aftermath of a sudden, violent death. The affable Krueger is well known for being “Minnesota nice,” and he’s a churchgoing man as well, so Ordinary Grace managed to be somehow uplifting and faith-affirming despite its sober themes. Henning Mankell’s Italian Shoes is like a photo-negative version of Ordinary Grace—instead of young protagonist Frank Drum, we have the retired doctor Fredrik Welin; instead of a supportive, loving family and community, we have a man living alone on a remote island, with only two aged pets keeping him company. Most importantly, the book is suffused with a peculiarly Scandinavian fatalism. If Krueger is Frank Capra in this scenario, Mankell is unabashedly Bergman.

While Mankell is best known for his Wallander series of mysteries, Italian Shoes is a work of straight fiction. There’s death—lots of it!—but it’s all natural, or in one case, self-inflicted. If it sounds depressing, it’s not, because this is a gorgeously-written book (the excellent translation is by Laurie Thompson). It’s harshly beautiful, like a fire-scarred cypress growing out of a craggy rock.

We first meet Welin on his solitary island, which he escaped to after some unnamed tragedy in his past. The only person he sees regularly is the postman who comes three days a week; naturally, Welin despises him. He spends his time writing pointless entries in a logbook and taking a daily jump into the freezing water, a way of proving that he’s still alive. At night, he reads: “A book about how the potato came to Sweden. I had read it several times before. Presumably because it didn’t raise any questions. I could turn page after page and know that I wasn’t going to be faced with something unpleasant and unexpected.”

One day, the fortress of solitude is breached by an ex-lover, Harriet, who shows up on the island on a frigid January day. He hasn’t seen her since he abandoned her nearly 40 years ago. Now she’s dying, and her last wish is that Welin take her to see a certain spot in the north of Sweden that he’d mentioned once before. Thus begins an eventful road trip that takes Welin off his island and far out of his comfort zone; he meets other significant people on the way, and when he eventually returns home, everything has changed. There are moments of searing melancholy and moments of great joy.

“I could still remember the first time I watched a person die,” says Welin (this is the rare Mankell book that is written in first person). “It happened without any movement, in complete silence. The big leap was so tiny. In a split second the living person joined the dead. I recall thinking: This person who is now dead is someone who has in reality never existed. Death wipes out everything that has lived. Death leaves no trace…”

Mankell himself joined the dead last year, but his books will live on for a long time to come. Italian Shoes is a masterwork, a poignant story that serves as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and to the unbreakable bonds that join people together even after one of them has passed into another realm.

This review is dedicated to the memory of my friend Janet Appel, whose memorial service will be held today.