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For fans of the genre like myself, the resurgence in popularity of crime fiction originating in Scandinavia has been brilliant because publishers have been working hard to get authors translated who might otherwise have not made it into print in English. However, there seems to be a fixation with describing new authors (or at least new to the English language market) in comparison with Stieg Larsson and while it can't be denied that Larsson's best-selling trilogy has brought legions of new readers to the genre, I do feel that's neither useful nor desirable to use Larsson as the yardstick by which all other authors are measured.
Take Mons Kallentoft, author of "Midwinter Sacrifice", the first in what looks set to be a series of crime fiction novels focussed on Malin Fors, a female police detective in the city of Linkoping in northern Sweden; the cover blurb of the novel describes Kallentoft as "better than Stieg Larsson" among other dubious accolades. Personally I'm not a fan of Larsson but I fear the praise lavished on Kallentoft on the basis of this first outing is excessively generous.
In the novel Fors investigates the death of a local man with learning difficulties who has been found hanging from a tree. The events take place in the middle of a bitterly cold winter, where temperatures of minus thirty are not uncommon; certainly the harsh climate does add another layer of chill to the story and Kallentoft writes so well about the weather that it almost becomes another character. If you think Sweden looks lovely in snowy scenes, you might think differently when you know what it feels like to be a police officer trying to gather forensic evidence in such conditions.
The case itself is fairly ordinary and disappointingly obvious and the page count could easily have been pruned with the exclusion of an unnecessary side plot that seem to be there only to bulk out this offering and ends so frustratingly that it leaves more questions unanswered than it resolves (not because the author intends to follow them up in a future novel, but because there just isn't an absolute outcome).
There was an aspect of Midwinter Sacrifice that I found even more annoying, however: the author gives a voice to the dead man Bengt Andersson who talks through his own death as it happens and then goes on to comment on the progress of the police investigation. It's not a literary technique I'm keen on and I didn't even like it in Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones", a novel that's based around that type of narration. When Malin starts to look into Andersson's death she recalls the words of her old boss who taught her to "listen to the soundless voices....that's where the truth is" and she tries to imagine what the dead man would tell her about what happened to him if he could talk to her. But what the dead man says is not what Malin imagines: the two are not the same and ultimately Andersson's words are an irrelevance, often written in an overly dramatic style that overshadows what would otherwise be a realistic storyline. Later on the dead man speaks out to a living person caught up in a terrible situation and here the novel hit its lower part for me.
As Malin's insights didn't intersect with the victim's narration I got the impression that this isn't a device the author intends to employ with future novels in this series. If I thought that was the case I'd be put off reading any more of them which would be a pity as there are signs here that this will become an entertaining and worthwhile series. I liked the character of Malin which Kallentoft develops well without revealing too much in this opener; she lives with her teenage daughter who, at the age of thirteen, gets her first boyfriend during the course of this novel. There's an ex-husband who Malin obviously still cares for a great deal and the door is left ajar for future development of this storyline.
Malin's colleagues are a little sketchy but there's plenty of time to put flesh on the bones and what's been done so far is certainly an invitation to keep reading. Malin's strained relationship with her parents who spend the winters in an apartment in the Canaries looks set to become a recurrent feature of future novels while the on-off relationship between Malin and an ambitious local journalist also promises some interesting possibilities. Behind all this there is the backdrop of small town Sweden with its own problems and there's some interesting socio-economic commentary neatly woven in which enhances rather than detracts from the storyline.
'Midwinter Sacrifice' is a fairly decent read in spite of the author employing a method of narration that I generally don't enjoy. The translation by Neil Smith reads well and while non-Swedish people can read the novel without sensing a culture gap, I didn't get that feeling I've had recently when reading Scandinavian crime fiction, that the novel had been written in such a way as to hitch a ride on the Larsson bandwagon.
Better editing would have significantly improved this novel, which could happily have shed at least a hundred pages of needless digression. However, I will look out for more Malin Fors novels as I do think she's going to develop into an interesting character. I wouldn't recommend 'Midwinter Sacrifice' as a one-off , it's too flawed for that ;as an introduction to a promising series, however, Malin's first outing had me wanting to know where she'll go next.