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The Gingerbread House

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Written by Carin Gerhardson — This book is the first in an intended series of crime thrillers set in the Stockholm district of Hammarby. The publisher and the editing team previously brought us Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Here, Hammarby’s Violent Crimes Unit is headed by Conny Sjoberg, an avuncular but determined officer, and his two assistants Petra Westman and Jamal Hamad.

Sjoberg and his team are called to investigate a murder. Ingrid Olsson, old, infirm but independent, returns to her house after a spell in hospital to find the body of a man lying on her kitchen floor. It transpires that he is Hans Vannenburg, a local estate agent. At first, there appears to be nothing linking the dead man to either the house or Mrs Olsson, and as other murders come to light, Sjoberg can find neither pattern nor culprit.

The book begins, however, with a flashback to distant events at a school in the suburbs. Katrineholm was a picturesque house on a wooded hill, pleasant in summer but menacing in the shadows of winter. While the setting may have been idyllic, the behaviour of some of its pupils certainly was not. We are introduced to several of these children – the bullies and the bullied. We know, long before the police, that the dead estate agent was one of the Katrineholm children, as was Thomas Karlsson. Thomas is a loner who works in an electronics warehouse, but his life has been scarred by the regime of bullying and unpleasantness he suffered at Katrineholm.

As readers we learn that the successive murder victims all went to Katrineholm, and were part of a gang which persecuted more vulnerable children, including Thomas. We also come much closer to the investigating team. Conny Sjoberg is a convincing and lovingly drawn character. Unlike some embittered and lonely fictional detectives, he can return in the evening to his wife Asa and their brood of happy and energetic children. Petra Westman is a single, attractive woman, and in a compelling sub-plot narrowly escapes with her life after an injudicious pick-up in a city bar. Jamal Hammad is an interesting creation too. A devout Muslim, he tries to reconcile the demands of his faith with what is expected of him as a policeman wading in the mire of other men’s misdeeds. The descriptions of the family lives of both the victims and police officers are beautifully done. The everyday mundanities, the warmth and reassurances of the familiar, and the comforts of the commonplace are used tellingly and contrast cruelly with the indignity of violent death.

There are chapters headed ‘Diary Of A Murderer’. These passages recount how killing goes some way to avenging the memory of a childhood full of violence, social rejection and terror. The narrator bristles with the memory of how everything – self esteem, joy of living and dreams for the future – has been reduced to ashes. The cathartic effect of revenge is described by the murderer, who says, “It already feels much better.” A later victim is told, “There are many ways to torment the life out of a small child. You chose the simplest.”

The translation falters occasionally in its treatment of idioms. For example, there are references to something called ‘bandy’ which, after looking it up, I found was a kind of ice hockey. At one point someone utters an exasperated, “Oh crud!” which does not entirely convince. The story takes us into a dark world of childhood trauma, twisted adulthood and consequent violent revenge. The sub-plot involving Petra is absorbing, without distracting from the main story. This a long and complex book, with strong characterisation and a major surprise in the final pages. Despite the odd discordance in the translation here and there, this is a fine novel, and should be a solid foundation for a continuing series. It’s out now on Kindle, with the paperback due on 25 October

Stockholm Text
Kindle/Print
£3.55

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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