Written by Åsa Larsson — There’s more than one Larsson in Scandinavian crime fiction and Åsa Larsson’s publishers are keen to remind us of this. Originally published under the Swedish title Solstrom in 2003, this book appeared in English as Sun Storm in 2006 and has been reprinted for the UK market entitled The Savage Altar. It reminds me of what I love about Nordic noir. The auspicious debut of the Rebecka Martinsson series opens with an achingly beautiful rendering of the aurora borealis against the winter night’s sky, seen from the perspective of the murder victim in his final death-throes – a priest in his own chapel, no less! Here, already, the three essential elements of Scandinavian crime fiction are juxtaposed: the rugged beauty of nature, the evil that men do under its merciless sun, and an artfully brutal act of homicide.
Gazing from the window of a modern office in downtown Stockholm, junior law partner Rebecka Martinsson daydreams about her wholesome childhood in Kiruna, a rural town in northern Sweden, unaware that she will soon receive a phone call summoning her to return there. When the local spiritual guru is found brutally murdered, the dead leader’s sister Sanna becomes the accused and calls on her childhood friend Rebecka to help sort things out.
Reluctantly, Rebecka finds herself thrust into the multiple roles of detective, lawyer, and protector of her client’s two children, all while coming to terms with her own disgrace in the small town. Eventually we get more of Rebecka’s backstory and the nature of her disgrace and consequent flight. She must summon all her strength to face the claustrophobic morals of the town which she struggled so hard to escape, solve the mystery, and try to keep her abandoned job at the law firm intact.
Another strong female character underpinning the story is the down-to-earth and very pregnant detective Maria Mello, who pursues the truth despite the imminent birth of her child, and the disruptive ego of the head prosecutor. As the nominal detective, Mello necessarily works parallel to Rebecka, and is another figure, among many, around whom Rebecka must navigate in her new role as lawyer for the defendant and self-imposed investigator of the mystery. You’ll realise early on why the series is not called Maria Mello.
Answers are hard to come by as the tax lawyer turned detective tries to ferret out the truth from the emotionally brittle Sanna, and the tight-lipped church community which bears a deep grudge towards Rebecka herself. When the clues suggest religious zealotry is the motive, Rebecka senses that the community’s moral crises and hypocrisy point towards to more disturbing secrets. The story is peppered throughout with flashbacks that serve to clarify present events concerning the charismatic church leader and the many lives in his orbit. Larsson’s ambitious narrative technique, telescoping into the past without warning, is a risky one that threatens to confuse early on, but we soon feel in capable hands.
The suspense builds to the very end wherein it seems almost everyone is a suspect. The investigations of Mello and Rebecka begin to converge at this point, as do certain tropes regarding their choices regarding having children, and when the truth is revealed our hero and her little charges are at their most vulnerable to harm from the killer. Larsson packs in a lot of characters, including a kindly old man and two dogs, perhaps to the detriment of character development. She even manages to insert the possibility of a love interest into Rebecka’s Martinsson’s investigation, just as the story reaches its white-knuckled and startlingly violent denouement.
For a debut novel Sun Storm is quite impressive, and lovers of Scandinavian crime fiction will find it very satisfying. I’m reserving my copy of the second installment, The Blood Spilt, today.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars
A thoughtful review Jeremy. Is there a bit of irony that this book of Scandinavian fiction is published by Viking?
Ha! I missed that. My copy was Delacorte, not nearly so exotic. Thank you for your comment