Written by Johan Theorin, translated by Marlaine Delargy — Like the three previous books in Johan Theorin’s Öland Quartet, which are gothic thrillers rooted in the tradition of Nordic noir whose settings follow the passage of the seasons, the concluding book is set during a sleepy summer heat wave. The Voices Beyond exudes a brooding atmosphere, and even a hint of the supernatural, as dark forces penetrate an idyllic Swedish island resort. At its core is an unsolved mystery going back 60 years to a corpse knocking from the grave.
Gerlof Davidsson, an 84-year-old retired sailor, spends most of his time in a private room in the old folks’ home, dwelling on his own mortality as he waits for a visit from his daughters. He passes the time handcrafting model ships in bottles while his friends die off around him, hoping the holiday at his summer cottage on the coastal island of Öland won’t be his last. One thing’s for sure, he’s destined for some adventure.
The Ölandic, the island’s dominant seasonal resort, is stirring to life, but there is a dark criminal element lurking in the blazing summer heat. Among the oblivious vacationers is a seasoned criminal known as the homecomer, a Swedish ex-pat soldier on his final deadly mission. You soon learn his past is deeply linked with Gerlof’s own. A big score is about to be settled on the small Baltic island that puts Gerlof at the centre of mayhem and death.
We learn in vivid detail the biography of the homecomer and his ties to the island. In chapters alternating with the present, harrowing episodes from his youthful career in Soviet Russia during the Great Terror eventually converge with the present day and his true purpose is revealed. With a deliberate and unhurried pace echoed by Gerlof’s thoughtful manner, Theorin builds a palpable feeling of dread that contrasts with the frolic of the summer vacationers. The homecomer plots with a group of disgruntled locals to rip-off the arrogant Kloss family, but his own game is much more terrifying.
The real terror begins when young Jonas Kloss, a teenage descendant of the old monied family, sees something he shouldn’t while out paddling one evening. He encounters a ship full of corpses except for one living man who is carrying an axe. He narrowly escapes and falls into the arms of Gerlof. The old sailor gently coaxes the facts out of the frightened boy, who afterwards sees a ghost near the ancient cairn built on the island’s edge.
Jonas’ uncle, Kent Kloss, is the shady alpha male of the family who runs the resort. When he learns of the midnight encounter, Uncle Kent tells Jonas to keep quiet. As the narrative progresses, you learn that Kent knows more about the homecomer than he’s saying, as does his wife Veronica, and it’s them he’s targeting. As the cops are busy sorting the dead bodies that begin to surface, it is Gerlof who identifies all the players menacing the resort.
One of them is Lisa, aka DJ Summertime, who spins records at the resort’s disco, always keeping one eye on the wallets of the rich and drunk. She’s on hard times and fending off calls from whoever is pressuring her to send money. She gets busted by Kent Kloss and is coerced into being his agent to flush out the homecomer from hiding.
Although Theorin’s strength is his well-drawn character motivation, Lisa is one that gets a lot of play but seems a weak prop in an otherwise sturdy edifice. Her negligible role in the larger drama distracts from the otherwise cohesive theme of revenge and family secrets that run through the book.
In contrast, the homecomer’s tale of torment is riveting and crucial in understanding the drama to come. The well-worn narrative device of intermittent World War II flashbacks running parallel to the present is done masterfully here, with nicely bridged scenes that build the case for the vengeful homecomer’s deep grievance against the Kloss family. The double-narrative is cleverly punctuated by the uncanny knock heard from the grave, which opens the book and echoes throughout like a death-knell.
After an explosive denouement that brings the book’s themes full-circle, the final chapter is a wonderful afterglow wherein Gerlof confronts his own destiny and solves a generations-old mystery. Theorin’s final subdued passage is a coda as inspiring as it is sublime.
With its ghost ships, graveyards, and haunted cairns, The Voices Beyond trades on a supernatural undercurrent, whereas the endearing Gerlof, an unlikely detective, mythbuster, and even a bit of a hypnotist, proves that supernatural phenomena are firmly grounded in the rational. Even so, in Theorin’s Öland, where ghosts are unmasked the mystique yet remains.
If you enjoy crime books with a hint of the supernatural, try the Charlie Parker series by John Connolly.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars