Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Johan Theorin

My passion for Scandinavian crime fic continues unabated, and I've recently come across two new authors in that genre - Jo Nesbo, Norwegian crime fic writer of the Harry Hole series, which are enjoyable, certainly, but doesn't offer very much beyond that; and Johan Theorin, whose crime novels are set on the little Swedish island of Oland.

And in Theorin, I have found an author who can grip the imagination and create convincing characters in much the same way that Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, in their fantastic Martin Beck series, could. Much of the credit should undoubtedly go to his translator, who has done a far better job than most other translations from the Swedish that I have read so far.

Theorin comes from the little fishing island of Oland, which comprises several small villages which are home to summer visitors from urban Sweden, and stay empty and deserted all through the winter months. There are a couple of larger towns - but they, too, come alive only during summer. While he no longer lives on the island of his childhood, Theorin's books are set here - and in the pages of his 'dark mystery novels with supernatural overtones', the island comes to life. This, I think, is what sets him apart from the other European crime fic writers - they are all, without exception, urban, urbane authors, and cities in their books - Stockholm and Malmo in Sweden, Oslo, Paris, Edinburgh, London - play just as big a role as the characters, whose lives are only too familiar to us city-bred readers. In Theorin's books, though, the slick city pace is missing - the landscape of Oland plays a large role (especially in his first novel, Echoes From the Dead), but what drives (for want of a better word) the narrative forward is the slow, gentle pace that characterises village life in general. Oland is portrayed in such loving, vivid detail - the sea, the wicked rocks that once wrecked ships, the summer cottages, all shut and deserted, the 'alvar' that great expanse of scrub and rocks that one can so easily get lost in, the mists that creep out from the sea, the winter blizzards that can kill - and what is ever present all through is, as Theorin said, the supernatural. Swedish folklore comes to life in places like Oland - myths and ghosts are as much a part of people's everyday lives as daily routines.

In Echoes From the Dead, we are introduced to Gerlof, an old sea captain who is one of Theorin's central characters and the one who gets to the bottom of the crimes committed - again, these cannot be called 'procedurals' in the strict sense of the term - it's hard to write 'police procedurals' when your stories are set in a place with one single police station with possibly five police officers for the entire island. Echoes From the Dead sees Gerlof finally solving the mystery of what had happened to his grandson, who went missing 20 years ago at the age of six. But the supernatural, which was merely an undercurrent here, really comes into its own in Theorin's second, darker novel, The Darkest Room. Socialised as I have been to think rationally and find a plausible explanation for all things not 'dreamt of in our philosophy', I found myself waiting for everything to be neatly tied up and presented at the end before I realised that wasn't the way to read Theorin's books - I had to let go, give in, let the atmosphere draw me in. And once I had done that, the book gripped me, gave me chills, terrified me, upset me, haunted me long after I had finished reading it. I didn't want it to end - and that's not something I can say about a lot of books.

The Darkest Room is set in northern Oland, in an old house situated next to the sea, which had been originally built in the nineteenth century as a home for the lighthouse keeper and his family. Now abandoned, it is bought by a young couple who want to escape city life, and bring up their small children in the peace and quiet that Oland offers. Within a few months, though, a member of the family dies - and while it looks like an accident, it could well be murder. As the others struggle to cope, a young policewoman, Gerlof's niece, in fact, tries to get to the bottom of it - with, of course, a lot of help from Gerlof, in the form of cryptic statements and grumpy suggestions. And all through the wonderful descriptions of the countryside, the sea, the old house - so vivid that it doesn't take much to imagine yourself there - are the ghosts, the spirits who reach out and communicate, who are as potent a force as the living.

I personally love slow, gentle books set in landscapes other than the usual - and not very interesting - metropolitan cities, books which spend time bringing characters to life, which dwell on descriptions, linger on thoughts and emotions. So it's no surprise that I loved both of Johan Theorin's books - I love how unapologetically different they are, I love that there's no rebellious, 'damaged' police officer at the centre of events, how it describes a way of life that's so completely alien to anything I - most of us, I'm sure - have ever experienced. But I'd recommend these to anyone who's a fan of crime fic, who enjoys good writing and imaginative stories.

And apparently Theorin has completed the third book in his Oland series. I can't wait.