Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Åsa Larsson, "Sun Storm"

"It had turned a little milder. The thermometer was showing minus fifteen ... "

The weather is cold, the body dismembered, the setting a church. The novel, of course, takes place in the south of France.

That's a joke, dear readers. With setting, killing and temperature like the ones I've described, Åsa Larsson's Sun Storm could only have taken place in Sweden. The question is relevant because among this novel's accomplishments are its creative spins on themes common in recent Nordic crime fiction.

Take the church, for one. Religion, its rejection by the public, and the fear of Satanism bubble close to the surface in a number of Nordic crime novels, Helene Tursten's The Glass Devil and Jo Nesbø's The Devil's Star among them. One could easily conclude from such books that citizens of the Nordic lands have an uneasy relationship with their churches. Usually, however, the theme is not central to the novel. A clergyman might be a victim or a suspect. Satanists might be suspected of a murder because of their earlier attack on a church building. But the books don't examine how believers believe, how practitioners "do" religion.

Here, the attacks on abuses committed in religion's name are more sustained and direct, both in matters of administration and of religious practice. And the protagonist, Rebecka Martinsson, is a former church member still bound by ties of memory and vestigial belief to the church people among whom she conducts her investigation.

Also, the weather is even colder than one might expect. Nordic crime novels tend to take place in or near their country's biggest cities. Sun Storm, by contrast, pulls Rebecka Martinsson from her Stockholm law office to her (and Larsson's) home town of Kiruna, in Sweden's far north. The novel is more one of action and character than of setting, but the setting does make for several differences. Drinkers drink at home rather than in bars. Place names sound Finnish rather than Swedish. There are references to the Sami, the ancient people of the far northern region where Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden meet. Intergral to the novel's main themes? Perhaps not, but they do contribute to its feel, as does the little girl a lock of whose hair freezes, much to her delight, on a typically cold day.

The novel abounds in such nice touches. A tyrannical police inspector gets his comeuppance not in some fantasy revenge scenario, but in a quiet snub. Large chunks of explanatory information are presented in engaging and clever ways. Themes that shout their way off the page in other novels are dealt with quietly here, almost daringly so. And Rebecka Martinsson's friend, accused in the killing of a charismatic religious leader, is handled far more convincingly than the cover blurb's description of her as "beautiful and fragile" might lead a reader to believe.

I have the tiniest of quibbles over a melodramatic touch or two, but I'll happily read Åsa Larsson's The Blood Spilt, currently available, and The Black Path, scheduled for publication this year.

Sun Storm, a literal translation of the novel's Swedish title, is called The Savage Altar in the U.K. The sun storm of the U.S. title is the aurora borealis, or Northern lights, evocatively and suprisingly described several times in the novel.

The book won Sweden's award for best first crime novel in 2003 and was short-listed for best crime novel. The Blood Spilt won for best crime novel of 2004.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Blogger Juri said...

Haven't read the novel, but sounds like it could take place in Finland as well.

August 13, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have read that the area around the city of Kiruna, where the novel takes place, was populated by Samis and Finns before the city was founded late in the nineteenth century. Also, the name Kiruna came from a longer name that has a definite Finnish sound to it.

I've never been to Sweden, but I suppose I have vague mental pictures of it from the Swedish novels I had read before this one. But Sun Storm had a very different feel to it. It is set in the region where Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden come together. No surprise that differences melt away, and that this book sounds as if its setting could be Finland.

August 13, 2007  

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