Written by Cilla and Rolf Börjlind, translated by Rod Bradbury — Spring Tide is a first novel from a Swedish husband and wife writing duo that’s arrived with some fanfare. It’s been a hit in Sweden, is being translated for dozens of territories and is set to be a 10-part TV drama in 2015.
Spring Tide is such an assured novel it hardly feels like a debut. Its authors are certainly not newcomers as they have written scripts for Arne Dahl, Wallander and the Beck series based on the novels of another crime writing couple, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.
The Martin Beck books were pioneering in their marriage of the police procedural with a clear-eyed scrutiny of Swedish society. It’s a tradition that Cilla and Rolf Börjlind belong to as well, along with Henning Mankell and the late Stieg Larsson. Spring Tide is a portrayal of Sweden featuring violent, disaffected youths, the homeless community living in fear, and members of the business elite socialising with the king.
However, that’s not to suggest this is a heavy-going, polemical novel. Spring Tide is pacy, packed with twists and never less than gripping. It also has one of the most arresting opening sequences in recent crime fiction. A small boy on the island of Nordkoster observes three people digging on the moonlit beach, which will soon be covered in deep water because of the spring tide. To his horror, he realises a fourth person is on the beach, buried up to her neck as the tide comes in. A scream sends the boy running – and then we learn that the buried woman is pregnant and her waters have just broken.
That’s just the first two-and-a-half pages, after which you’ll become obsessive about discovering the nature of this horrible crime. The unsolved murder took place in 1987 and the narrative then shifts to the present as police trainee Olivia Rönning reads up on the cold case her late father had worked on in the 80s. A young police trainee is an inspired choice for a central character. Given her inexperience, Olivia is quick to consider clues that raise the same questions that occur to us, even if they prove to be a dead end. Her investigation includes a perilous trip to the island exposed to the stormy sea. She’s out of her depth, but tracking down the other original detective on the case proves difficult. Tom Stilton has apparently disappeared.
Alongside Olivia’s story, the Börjlinds also portray Stockholm’s homeless community under threat from attackers who post footage on the internet. There are some shocking sequences, though these troubled outsiders are not mere plot fodder. One-eyed Vera, who bemoans the decline of the welfare state while proving to be a highly effective seller of homeless magazine Situation Stockholm, is one of several strong supporting characters.
The plot becomes murkier with the blackmailing of mining magnate Bertil Magnuson, whose business activities in Africa have prompted protests in Sweden. Magnuson is certainly a dodgy character: at one point he recalls celebrating the 1986 murder of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, hated on the right for his anti-colonial views.
Olivia Rönning and the missing detective Tom Stilton do eventually become a double act in an investigation that involves call girls, a Costa Rican connection and a croupier with special powers whose brutal efficiency is reminiscent of another fictional force of nature, Lisbeth Salander. With an ensemble cast, the switching points of view are adroitly handled by Cilla and Rolf Börjlind, who quickly develop a rhythm of clipped, cinematic chapters that make you keep telling yourself you’ll read just a few more pages.
Their appearance in the recent A Darker Shade anthology had me convinced the Börjlinds were a major talent to watch in crime fiction. With Spring Tide, they’ve more than delivered on that promise with a vivid portrayal of Swedish society beset with violence and corruption alongside a tightly-plotted, menacing mystery that hurtles along to a devastating finale that’s just as dramatic as that haunting opening chapter. With a sequel set to appear in 2015, this is shaping up to be the next big Swedish crime series.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars