Sibylla, for reasons that we later discover, has decided to remove herself from society, living a hand to mouth existence and sleeping rough. Occasionally, as a treat, she dresses up and persuades whoever she can find to pay for a meal and a room in a hotel. Unfortunately, this time, the man in question is found murdered, and Sibylla is the prime suspect. Fleeing the hotel, she manages to keep herself hidden, but soon, there is a second murder and Sibylla is much sought after. Can she keep away from the clutches of the police until her name is cleared? And is there anything she can do to clear her name?
I have read and enjoyed one or two books by Karin Alvtegen before, so was more or less sure that I would have an entertaining read. Alvtegen is a Swedish author who tends to tell her stories from the point of view of the victim, rather than the police - in this case, Sibylla is a homeless woman who just happens to have been at the site of the first murder. As a character, Sibylla is an interesting one. er story is told from the point of view of the present in one chapter and then the past in alternating chapters, which is a very gripping way of doing things, as the information is given to us a bit at a time. Her childhood was quite traumatic, and it is easy to see why she ends up being homeless, all of which adds to her layers as a character. She has had mental health issues in the past - and as mental health is a subject close to my heart, I found this particularly interesting. She isn't the most endearing character I have ever come across, but she certainly is appealing, and she provides an insight into the everyday trials and tribulations of a homeless person.
The other characters in the book play very secondary roles, and this is perhaps why they don't seem very natural. Her parents, for example, are very black and white - her mother is an evil manipulator and her father is totally under his wife's thumb. I found this all quite hard to believe - most people have shades of good and evil in them, but not, apparently, Sibylla's parents. A couple of the wives of the murder victims also came across as being very one-dimensional. Then there is Patrik, a fifteen year old boy who helps Sibylla - again, there is not that much to him. I can forgive this though, because Sibylla's character is good enough to carry the story.
I'll get another criticism out of the way before I start on the other positives. There is often a need to suspend disbelief when reading the story - there are a number of plot threads that I found hard to take in. Most crime fiction has this fault - story lines are often contrived and based on massive coincidences. However, with this story, I did find myself unable to forget some of the bigger coincidences - Patrik, for example, is way too resourceful for a teenager (or indeed anyone), able to get into his police officer mother's email at the police station, and to find someone who can hack into official databases. I also didn't entirely accept the killer's motive. It didn't ruin my enjoyment of the story, but it did prey on my mind while reading.
Despite this, I found the book very entertaining and hard to put down; I think partly because I wanted to know how Sibylla had ended up in her predicament, and partly because I wanted to know who was carrying out the killings. The way that these two threads were split between alternate chapters was very compelling - and the fact that the chapters were quite short meant that I often ended up reading more than I had planned to each time I picked the book up. It isn't, as I've already mentioned, the best work of crime fiction I've ever read (and I've read a lot...), but it is definitely told in a very entertaining way.
The fact that the book has been translated from the Swedish is really of little concern. There was the odd occasion when I felt that the English was a little wooden, particularly during the speeches when the author had perhaps used slang, but it didn't happen often, and generally I felt that the translator, Anna Patersen, did a great job. The fact that the story is set in Sweden really doesn't matter very much either. Of course, names of people and places are a little alien, but otherwise, it could have taken part in any part of the world.
Despite some reservations about the plot and the one-dimensional secondary characters, I did really enjoy this book. It is very easy to read and the pacing is great - there are no boring bits here. I think that anyone who enjoys crime fiction will like this book, and indeed any of the others that this author has written - I can particularly recommend Betrayal. And don't be put off by the fact that it is a translation - it makes very little difference. Recommended.
The book is available from play.com for £6.49. Published by Canongate Books, it has 352 pages. ISBN: 9781841954981
Using a confidence trick to get a warm bed for the night Sybilla Forstenstroem, a young homeless woman, finds herself the chief suspect for the brutal murder of a businessman in Stockholm's Grand Hotel. Terrified she lies low hoping that the furore will calm down but when she meets Patrik, a young boy who is as much an outsider as she, she learns that more murders have taken place and that the press are branding her an evil serial killer. What's more, they have dug up her entire background - how she was brought up in a privileged middle-class family but was admitted to hospital for mental health problems before disappearing - and are starting to try to link it with the murders. Sybilla is only too aware that she has no alibi and realizes that Patrick is right when he says they will have to find the killer themselves.
Running parallel with this story is another that tells the story of how Sybilla came to be living on the streets. The chapters alternate and eventually meet up near the book's climax. It is a particularly satisfying method of storytelling for a thriller because it really gets a grip on the reader and you have to plough on because the fast pace and the dramatic endings to the chapters are so compelling. Quite often I get annoyed by this technique in novels but here it is entirely appropriate because it really adds to the character development of Sybilla.
What I especially liked about "Missing" was that it seems to be something of a reversal of the conventional thriller in that the chief protagonist inadvertently finds herself mixed up in a crime and that there is almost no police involvement. Furthermore, it is unusual and pleasing to find that in this case the homeless character is not the one who gets murdered or the one that commits the crime. In fact the whole issue of homelessness is tackled in an interesting and enlightening way with the emphasis on Sybilla's resourcefulness and strength rather than her vulnerability.
That the author is Swedish is neither here nor there though I have seen favourable comparisons with Henning Mankell, another famed author of thrillers from Scanadinavia. However, while the setting doesn't mean particularly much to the plot, it is interesting for non-Swedes perhaps to read a thriller set somewhere a little different and odd details here and there breath some life into the genre and liven it a little.
On the surface I would have probably rejected this book if I had known in advance that the heroine works alongside a child to clear her name but I did find the characters and the situation very credible even if the connection between Patrik and Sbyilla seemed a bit clichéd. However one aspect that jarred with the overall success of this novel is the use of excerpts from newspaper articles that are used to move the story on. It didn't seem possible that in the event of four brutal murders, even if there was a chief suspect, personal details about the background of the suspect would be used so speculatively. After all I am sure the Swedish press is as bound as the British press to follow guidelines in order not to prejudice a possible trial.
This is a minor complaint however; I really enjoyed this book and sped though it in just two days. I would recommend it as a good holiday read as it is compelling without being taxing. I always like to try to guess the identity of the villain and I must admit I did work this one out although I must admit there were one or two good twists. It is at the lighter, more accessible end of the genre but I will certainly be looking out for other novels by this author.
Pages - 352
Canongate Books - 1841954981
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In The Grand Hotel, a homeless woman charms a businessman into paying for dinner and a room. When his dead body is discovered the following morning she becomes the prime suspect. When a second person is killed in similar circumstances, Sybilla, having left her comfortable middle class upbringing for the anonymity of the streets, becomes the most wanted person in Sweden ... Missing is a totally compelling read and a classic thriller that confirms Alvtegen as a crime writer worth comparison with Henning Mankell. But at its core, the book also explores the terrifying isolation for a woman who has rejected the values of her background and intimacy of her family.