Yule Island by Johana Gustawsson 

3 Mins read
Yule Island by Johana Gustawsson front cover

Translated by David Warriner — An infamous manor house on a small Swedish island. A wealthy family with secrets. A string of unexplained deaths. In the first of a new series, French crime author Johana Gustawsson, who has Nordic roots, combines elements of the traditional gothic thriller with dark Scandinavian crime fiction. The result is a riveting and atmospheric jaw-dropping read.

Gustawsson’s story unfolds via three narrators: Emma Lindahl, an art expert; Karl Rosén, an investigating detective; and Viktoria, a manor house housekeeper. These three characters not only offer different perspectives, but each also harbour secrets that are revealed over time.

Maria Sjörgen is dead. The 16-year-old’s body is found in the cold waters of the Baltic near Storholmen, an island on the Stockholm Archipelago. But this is a very suspicious death – scissors on a leather cord were tied around the victim’s neck and her big toes were bound together with black sewing thread. Detective Karl Rosén is assigned the case and he’s all too familiar with the scene.

Sofia Axelsson was discovered in similar circumstances nine years ago, and that case remains unsolved. Both girls were estranged from their families and may have suffered from psychiatric issues. They were the same age and were murdered on the same day of the year. Karl still feels guilty about not catching Sofia’s killer, and this time he can’t let the culprit escape justice.

Storholmen is also the destination for Emma Lindahl, for very different reasons. She arrives there to inventory and appraise the artefacts in the Gussman family’s manor. Immediately, she suspects that something is wrong with the family. When she’s in the house, she has to follow Niklas Gussman’s rules, and it appears that the entire family are avoiding her. It’s also where Sofia Axelsson, also known as The Hanging Girl, was discovered almost a decade ago.

Crossing these two main characters’ narratives is that of Viktoria, a woman who fled from her abusive and demanding husband with her young daughter, Josephine, to work at the manor house. Viktoria, also realises that something is off about the family, particularly their son. The tension builds through Viktoria’s perspective, and readers are kept on the edge of their seats, waiting for something dramatic to happen.

Gustawsson creates credible and authentic characters in Emma and Karl, and since this is the first in a series, one would assume at least one of them will be a recurring character. Karl elicits more sympathy, although both have lost someone close to them. His wife, Freyja, went missing after her daily swim and is thought to be dead. He clearly struggles to keep his head above water, but solving the two cases provides him with a sense of purpose and drive. Emma describes him as “a fragile giant ready to collapse at any moment,” and despite his size, he is depicted as an extremely vulnerable man.

Compared to her earlier series featuring Emily Roy and Alexis Castells as the lead characters, Yule Island doesn’t have a significant historical component and clear social commentary. Instead, the characters and the crime are given more attention, which makes for a more compelling narrative with background detail required.

That’s not to say Gustawsson doesn’t delve into some Viking history. Both girls were murdered on 29 December, five days after the Winter Solstice and an important date in the Viking calendar. Similarly, every nine years during Yule, some suggest that the Vikings performed a blood sacrifice and hung the bodies from a tree with an open pair of scissors over the chests of the dead to prevent them from returning as zombies.

Gustawsson reminds us of her skill as a writer with Yule Island. It’s a crime novel that’s moody, atmospheric and exquisitely descriptive, with enough surprises to keep even the most seasoned readers of crime fiction guessing.

Also see The Crow Girl by Erik Axl Sund.

Orenda Books

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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