This week I have a post from guest reviewer Tom Priestly who has been a long time reader of Crimepieces. Tom is a big Nordic Noir fan and has sent a very useful list of his favourite Scandi crime writers in order of preference. I’ll be reading the latest book by Stefan Ahnem as part of my Petrona judging but Tom has beaten me to it and has kindly agreed to review it here on Crimepieces.
Stefan Ahnem’s Victim Without a Face is his first novel, but his previous writing experience (e.g., some of the Wallander TV scripts) has borne fruit: it is well-plotted and grabbed my attention from very early on. It has what may be called rave blurbs on the cover by the outstanding writers Michael Hjorth and Hans Rosenfeldt (the Sebastian Bergman series) and Ake Edwardson (the Erik Winter series); so, although almost every new mystery book has seemingly pretentious blurbs, the reader may have high expectations from this one. All such expectations were in my case fulfilled: I consider this an outstanding mystery — but I have serious reservations too.
Investigator Fabian Risk has been re-assigned from Stockholm after some dubious event there, and travels down with his children and wife to Helsingborg, his home town, to start afresh and also to try to bring his family life into order. Nothing at all new yet, plot-wise. Still officially on leave, he is called in to assist with a case of a very brutal murder of one of his former classmates, with a telling memento left at the scene: a class photo with the victim’s face crossed out. Soon a second equally brutal one — of a second classmate — is called in, and the photo is there again, with the second face covered in a large black X. Among the twenty-plus children on the photo is Risk; his girl-friend of the time; and the boy whom the two current victims used to bully mercilessly. It looks as if the murderer is obvious, but only if he can be traced: he seems to have vanished from Sweden without leaving the country.
Two hundred pages down, another four hundred to go! Fortunately, the pace heats up. We often read the killer’s thoughts; the scene shifts over the water to Denmark and back; dead bodies begin to accumulate in numbing quantities, each killed in an ingenious and hideous manner; and the plot takes many unexpected but ultimately logical twists. As long as one can stand many very unpleasant forensic details, this may indeed be regarded as ‘brilliant’ and ‘fabulous’ (to quote a third blurb from the cover.) Moreover, the location was new to me, and was made an interesting one. Why then do I have reservations?
First, the length: 588 pages. Edwardson’s blurb includes the sentence “I read it at one sitting”. If we take this literally, it is highly unlikely. If he managed one page a minute, he will have spent nearly three days-and-nights on this task, without sleep, without bathroom breaks, and having to be spoon-fed. I found it so good that I did read it more quickly than the average two mysteries, but it was still a huge effort, as well as being heavy and unwieldy. Yes, the chosen plot requires a lot of detail, and yes, it is not difficult to read, but still I think careful editing would have pared it down to below 500 pages (!) — even with what I think are necessary additions, as now explained.
Second, it stops too abruptly. I wanted to know what happened to Risk and his fractured family, how the rest of the detective team worked out the intricacies of the crimes, and the fate of the two Danish characters — the lazy and manipulative chief inspector and his rebellious (but crucial to the plot!) female subordinate. Frustratingly, none of this information is provided: the reader is left in mid-air.
Third, there are some very annoying “Dick Bartons”. This is my own name for “cliffhangers” in detective stories, when the reader is presented with a crucial point in the narrative and then has to wait for some (short or long) while for its resolution. I base the term on the radio show which I, and millions of other young Britons, listened to – every evening when possible! – between 1946 and 1951 (when I was 9 to 14 years old), see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dick_Barton). In this series, Dick and his side-kicks Jock and/or Snowy would be at the mercy of a maniac with a large knife, or in a locked room slowly filling with water, or hanging five storeys up from a fraying rope, or in a some other equally perilous plight — at the end (as I now remember) of every single episode (or, as is written nowadays on Facebook: Every. Single. Episode.) I find that in a mystery story Dick Bartons are acceptable and enjoyable, but they must (a) not be too obvious, (b) not be too numerous, and especially (c) not have resolutions for which readers wait too long. There are not too many Dick Bartons in Ahnhem’s book, but they are obvious, and one — where a member of Fabian Risk’s family sees the murderer in a reflection in his bedroom on page 301 and we find out his fate on page 502 — is, in my view, more than just excessive: on top of the great length and the too-sudden ending, it is, for me, unacceptable. — Given the real qualities of the book, this is a great, great pity: were it not for these reservations, I would rate this among the dozen best Scandinavian mysteries that I have ever read. Readers without those reservations will enjoy it immensely and unreservedly (!).
This mammoth piece of translating was by Rachel Wilson-Broyles; it is in good contemporary English, but loses none of the Swedish-ness. (As a translator myself, I refrain from writing “well-translated”: only fluent readers of Swedish may judge this aspect.) And one other plus: there is no prominent “International Bestseller” blurb on the cover (these annoy me: if it is a bestseller from a Scandinavian country, it will be necessarily “international”).