Translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner — A young boy and a father figure in the woods are collecting botanical specimens, a bucolic scene a few pages in from the opening to this beguiling historical crime novel. The man is Pastor Lars Levi Laestadius, who was the real-life leader of a Lutheran revival in the Arctic north of Sweden. The young boy is Jussi, a runaway Sami who fled from abuse and starvation with just the rucksack on his back. The year is 1852.
The charismatic pastor not only saves Jussi, but also teaches him to read and write, love and fear God, and to see the world and plants through observation. A plant must be viewed from all angles; every detail inspected.
When milkmaid Hilda goes missing in the forest the pastor urges Jussi to examine the area and stick to the facts of what can be seen. He concludes that Hilda had lain with another in an “aroused embrace”, strands of her hair had been tugged out and a find of Arctic heather suggests the other person had travelled from the north.
When her body is found in the bog nearby, Jussi takes notes as the pastor examines the corpse and suspects the girl has been raped, throttled by human thumbs on her throat and marks have been made post mortem with a knife, to (almost) resemble a bear’s claws.
A second girl is attacked. Panic and superstition grip the inward-looking community that a killer bear is on the loose. The bullish drunk Sheriff Brahe dismisses any notion of a human being responsible for the slaughter and a mother bear and her cubs are hunted, butchered and cooked. Case closed, as far as the law is concerned.
Laestadius knows there’s a bear in human form with a taste for killing – the most dangerous kind. And what can you do when evil is in your midst? The pastor has a forensic sense of smell and attention to detail, uses early daguerreotypes, and with his dog to sniff the trails he builds a profile of the killer from the evidence.
As unorthodox religious detectives go, Laestadius, has the logic of Father Brown, but many more enemies. His fervour for his revivalist movement among the Sami and outcast of society sees him preach against the evils of drink. Those who profit from and are addicted to alcohol are angered. As his investigations bring him closer to the truth, he realises too late the danger that threatens him and makes young Jussi a target of racially-motivated hate too.
It’s both a beautiful and violent world and Jussi is given a voice to narrate the events. It’s an inspired device to tell the story from the viewpoint of a child. Jussi has seen and suffered a lot of brutality in his short life. He longs for acceptance, but watches from the sidelines, suffering more injustice in the superstitious community. It’s not all bleak for Jussi though in this inhospitable landscape at a time of uprisings, unrest and social upheaval. There’s the magic of discovery and learning that delights and transforms the boy. The pastor is gentle, seeing in Jussi the very young son Levi he lost to measles years earlier. He’s fierce and charismatic when’s he’s addressing his church congregation.
It’s that mix of philosophical debate, coming-of-age story, literary novel and historical crime mystery that is so beguiling. Mikael Niemi pulls this off through immersing us in the smells, feel and sounds of this community with its menace, myths and superstitions. Despite having a mystic preacher at the heart of the book, you won’t feel lectured to, as Jussi observes the happenings and compels you to turn the page.
If you love contemporary Scandinavian crime fiction you’ll enjoy the horror and dark themes woven in the plot as you are thrust into the convincing world of 19th century Sweden. The author Niemi was born in Pajala, near the Finnish border where the real Laestadius and his wife are buried, just yards from the grave of Niemi’s parents. The legendary preacher, whose movement still has followers today, inspired him.
For another chilling dose of crime set in the far north of Scandinavia try Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbo.
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CFL Rating: 5 Stars