Written by Emilie Schepp — Nothing seems to ruffle Jana Berzelius, the cool and collected public prosecutor based in the Swedish municipality of Norrköping. With her formal manner and never a hair out of place, she’s the consummate professional who commands respect. So it’s no surprise when she’s called in by the chief prosecutor to head the investigation of the murder of Hans Juhlén, a highly placed migration official who was shot execution-style in his own home. His distressed wife’s emergency call opens the book.
Schepp begins with a sure hand, and this debut novel earned her the 2016 Swedish Crime Writer of the Year award. For fans of Nordic noir, Schepp delivers her credentials early on. The first three chapters have the episodic tension of a Hans Rosenfeldt television script. We are given a crime scene with a chilly Baltic backdrop, introduced to the team of investigators, and get a glimpse of the drama of a frightened child in a freight container full of refugees that portends dark deeds ahead. The investigative team has little evidence to work with at the crime scene except an open window and a child’s handprint, which is strange because the Juhléns have no children.
No witnesses can be found initially, but CCTV footage reveals a hooded child in the vicinity of the house. When the investigators finally find him, he is also dead – again, killed execution-style. During the investigation Jana is ever fearless and calm. Not one for small talk, she suffers no fools. Even Mia Bolander can’t get under her skin. Mia is a down-to-earth blue collar detective who rose up from the working class streets. She can’t stand Jana’s snooty airs and is antagonistic towards the privileged ice queen with the silver spoon in her mouth. But we learn Jana’s cool exterior belies a darker, edgier past.
The discovery of a scar on the dead boy’s neck recalls the mysterious scar which Jana has been hiding most of her life. Her own scar represents a childhood memory wiped by trauma, so the dead boy awakens deeply hibernated memories, disrupting her cool composure. We don’t like spoilers, but if you’ve read the publisher’s generous blurb you already know the team is dealing with child refugees who are kidnapped and trained as assassins who call their abductor ‘Papa’.
By the time the team realise Juhlén was a bad guy who exploited asylum-seekers and the codes on his computer point to missing freight containers, Jana is already ahead of them, and implicates herself in a very dangerous game. The daughter of a highly-regarded prosecutor, she must skirt her father’s influence, the cops, and the justice system in order to confront the mystery of her own past and her very identity.
During this fast-paced investigative drama, Schepp populates the investigation with a range of characters, but they feel flat and less vibrant than the story they’re participating in. Besides Jana and Mia, there’s chief Gunnar Öhrn, DCI Henrik Levin, technician Ola Söderström, and forensic ace Anneli Lindgren, who has an off-and-on relationship with chief Gunnar.
Although Schepp provides a strong character in Jana, her real strength is suspenseful plotting, which tends to outshine the characters. If you think a plot involving child assassins in Sweden is over the top, Schepp reminds us that the country is just a boat ride away from the grim realities of military-trained children in armed conflicts in Africa and those recruited by ISIL.
The wispy characterisations are nowhere more evident than in the crucible event of the story. After all the built-up tension, the final action-packed confrontation between Jana and Papa amounts to middling conventional drama. The obligatory gloating villain speech performed by a quasi-philosophical bad man is just not that interesting. One promising sub-plot early on, that of threatening letters in the Juhlén home that points to his systematic rape of vulnerable refugees, is not as tidily wrapped so much as dropped. But Schepp’s eliding of plot elements and character development can also be seen as an economical strategy that serves the book’s suspenseful pace. Marked for Life is quite a page-turner, as Jana races to get the bad guy and find out who she is.
Marked for Life is a promising debut for an author whose book began as a self-published manuscript in a competitive market. She may not be the next Stieg Larsson, but Marked for Life is an entertaining entry into Nordic noir and the first in a trilogy about the charismatic Jana Berzelius, a series worth following but which might benefit from more editorial scrutiny.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars