Johanna Gustawsson won two prestigious French awards for her first novel, Block 46. I saw her recently at a crime fiction festival, Newcastle Noir, and she gave an insight into the writing of the book. Block 46 is a distinctive thriller drawing on the traditions of both French and Swedish crime fiction. The mutilated body of a young jewellery designer, Linnea Blix, is found in a marina. Her body bears the trauma of a distinctive form of torture that follows a similar pattern to that inflicted on two young boys in London. Linnea’s friend, true-crime writer Alexis Castells, travels to Sweden to find answers to the murder which she feels is being hampered by a set of assumptions that the Swedish police force are using as the basis of investigation. It’s only when Alexis teams up with Emily Roy, a profiler on loan to Scotland Yard from the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, that links to the Second World War become apparent.
The book is a dark, brutal thriller that oscillates between the modern day investigation and Block 46, the death unit in Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Linking a fictional modern day crime to an historic mass murder is a bold move and contributes to the darkness of the narrative. I think the story succeeds by the use of a neutral tone in the translation which allows the reader to keep a slight distance from the acts of violence. Nevertheless, the depictions of the killings aren’t for the faint-hearted although readers of crime fiction in translation will probably find the violence no stronger than that of Pierre LeMaitre or Jo Nesbo.
It was good to see two women paired as a duo. I see the book is being billed as the first in the ‘Roy and Castells’ series and, as an investigating team, the series promises to be a strong one especially with a writer who is so articulate about her own writing.
The translator is Maxim Jakubowski.