Our continuing fascination with crime fiction from the Nordic regions has led to several non-Scandinavian authors setting their novels in Sweden, Norway, Iceland and even the Faroe Islands. However, just because you put your characters in Sweden doesn’t necessarily make your novel Nordic noir. Fortunately, Sarah Hollister and Gil Reavill’s This Land is No Stranger lives up to expectations for fans of this particular sub-genre.
Although both authors are American, Hollister has been living in Sweden for quite some time and uses this experience to convey a realistic depiction of the country. Reavill, on the other hand, has observed Sweden through the American media. The result of this well-balanced collaboration is an intricate crime fiction story, which like other Nordic noir novels preceding it, explores issues impacting Swedish society. In This Land is No Stranger these issues concern the Roma minority and far right activism.
Veronika Brand, a disgraced NYPD detective, receives an unexpected call from her grandmother’s sister demanding she attend her 95th birthday in the remote town of Härjedalen. Driven by her curiosity to learn more about her heritage, alongside a current lack of career prospects, Veronika travels to Sweden where she crosses paths with Krister Hammar, a local Sami lawyer. Krister convinces Veronika to investigate the ongoing disappearances of Roma women from the streets of Stockholm.
As the female protagonist, Veronika Brand is a great example of the tortured Scandinavian detective stereotype we have grown used to thanks to Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell and others. With her black sweatshirt, black jeans, black boots, control issues and suspiciousness it’s easy to see a fragment of Lisbeth Salander in Veronika. In addition, she has an out-of-control addiction to Adderall which is increasingly difficult to hide.
Krister takes her to Sotieborg Manor on a neighbouring farm to show her the typical Swedish architecture. Instead, they come across the bloody aftermath of the brutal killing of two men, possibly by an animal. Veronika’s drug-induced psychosis and general distrust in men leads to her instantly suspect Krister of foul play, assuming he wants to frame her.
Sotieborg and the surrounding farm land belongs to the Voss family, one of the most affluent families in Sweden, known for their trucking empire, criminal activities and far right connections. Through the Voss storyline and the dubious character of Baron Kron and his interest in trying to create a master race, attention is drawn to the rise of the far right in Sweden. Although it is generally considered a liberal, humanitarian country that is tolerant of immigrants, extremism still lurks beneath the surface.
There’s certainly a lot going on. Krister and Veronika find themselves in the middle of this hornet’s nest, unintentionally ensnared in uncovering a criminal network with its roots firmly lodged in a powerful family – one that might have altered the course of Veronika’s own family history. How was the patriarch Loke Voss involved in the flight of Veronika’s grandparents, Gustav and Klara Dalgren, to America in 1940? What caused the ensuing feud between the Vosses and Dalgrens?
With the assistance of Aino Lehtonen, a Finnish-Romanian photographer and Moro Part, a godfather figure in the Roma community, Krister and Veronika trace the threads back to the kidnapped women. Meanwhile, we are introduced to Varzha Luna, a Roma woman kidnapped in central Stockholm. The Roma people and the missing girls are given a voice through the kidnapped woman. But Varzha is no victim, she let herself be kidnapped and is out for revenge.
This Land is No Stranger’s approach to the immigrant crisis differs slightly from other similar novels. Here the immigrants aren’t treated as faceless victims. Varzha has a full-fledged role as one of the main protagonists. The Romani culture and traditions receive equal attention. The core Roma storyline does what many Scandinavian, and other, crime writers have done over the past few years. It addresses the sticky issues of immigration, human trafficking and the reality of minority communities in foreign countries.
The title refers to a quote by the Swedish poet, Gunnar Ekelöf, which says, “I am a stranger in this land, but this land is no stranger within me.” Who the real stranger is in this instance is for the reader to decide.
Nordic Noir readers will be impressed with the novel’s isolated snow-covered and hostile setting which makes for many action-packed and suspenseful scenes. With a duo of ruthless Olympic skier-assassins, one particular action sequence is almost reminiscent of a classic 80s Bond movie. Supporting the thread of societal issues is a strong and well-developed plot which makes for riveting reading. On the whole, a thrilling read with an extensive cast of characters which demands your full attention.
Kati Heikkapelto’s The Exiled is set in Hungary and also has a Roma element.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars