I often find these days, when it comes to crime fiction, that it's advisable to read the books of a series in chronological order, otherwise you're likely to run into a spoiler or two. Sometimes an episode works well as a stand alone but when the central character - usually a police officer or detective - has a well developed background, especially one outside the job, readers may prefer to stick to sequence. The Darkest Room is only loosely a second novel of a short series, but, in retrospect, I wish I'd read its predecessor Echoes of the Dead first; not because I needed to be brought up to speed with the story so far but because it might have established a connection that would make me care about the characters.
The Darkest Room is a deeply atmospheric tale and one that doesn't fit so comfortably under the banner "crime fiction" in spite of attempts by booksellers to hook it up with some of the recent Scandinavian best sellers of that genre. It's set for the main part on the Swedish island of Oland just as winter starts to set in. Katrine and Joakim, a young married couple from Stockholm and their two young children arrive on Oland, having bought the dilapidated old farmhouse at Eel Point.
Also recently arrived on Oland is police officer Tilda Davidsson. She hasn't been on the island very long when she has to break some sad news; while he's been back in the city, Joakim's wife has been found dead, seemingly the result of an accident by the water's edge. A few days later she mentions the death to Gerlof, the brother of her now dead grandfather, Ragnor (who I understand featured in Echoes of the Dead) who has been helping Tilda by filling in some gaps in the family history for her; the old man tells her something which makes Tilda think that the young woman's death may not be as clear cut as first appeared. Back in Oland, Tilda divides her time between an unofficial investigation into Katrine's death, and tracking down the burglars responsible for a series of raids on empty summerhouses belonging to rich city dwellers.
So far, so good, but The Darkest Room is not a straightforward piece of crime fiction. There are three elements that lend a strong supernatural tone to the story. Running through the story are excerpts from a history of Eel Point and the people who have lived there over the centuries; after a while it becomes clear that the writer is Katrine's more or less estranged mother, Mirja. The story tells of tragic deaths and terrible storms - in short we learn that Eel Point is associated with great sorrow. This sense is heightened when Joakim's young daughter, Livia, starts behaving strangely; is she just a normal child reacting to the death of her mother, or is there something more sinister going on?
The other element that adds some supernatural mystery is an aspect of the storyline relating to the burglaries; a pair of good for nothing brothers who spend there time plotting mischief and getting high enlist the help of a rather more professional thief in targeting the empty holiday homes on the island but use a Ouija board to seek advice on their next move. I found this idea really irritating and wasn't sure whether I was being asked to laugh at the hapless threesome or perhaps expected to ponder whether there might, after all, be some darker forces at work.
Ignoring these (for me major) irritations, there is still much to recommend The Darkest Room. The imagery is quite splendid: the harsh weather is described with chilling brilliance, especially at the climax when. Personally I don't much care for ghost stories but Theorin uses the idea of some unworldly influence in a clever way to make you question what appears to be quite ordinary and the presence of the stormy weather only serves to heighten the surreal atmosphere. Theorin does show real insight in the nature of grief and loss and the portrait of the bereaved Joakim is particularly memorable.
The Darkest Room won the Glass Key Award for Best Nordic Crime Novel in 2008 so there are clearly many who really rate Theorin; on this showing, however, I'm not one of them. The supernatural element just doesn't do it for me and the rather faceless characters (with the exception of Joakim) didn't give me much reason to care. An unsatisfying ending only served to fuel my irritation; it seemed rushed and didn't tie up all of the loose ends. In spite of one or two flashes of excellence, The Darkest Room doesn't live up to the hype.
This review first appeared at www.curiousbookfans.co.uk
The Darkest Room is yet another Scandinavian murder mystery set on Oland, an island off the coast of Sweden. Joakim and Katrine seem like typical smug married yuppies who have left Stockholm to start a new life on the island, buying and fixing up a decaying old mansion in a remote part of the island called Eel Point. This house was the home of Katrine's family many years ago, and although it isn't associated with happy times for them, Joakim and Katrine hope to make a new start there.
Things quickly go wrong for the couple, though, when Joakim gets a call from the police during a visit to Stockholm. He is told his daughter Livia has died, but when he returns to Oland it turns out that it's actually his wife, Katrine, who is dead.
Although the authorities are quick to judge the death of Katrine and accident, Joakim is not so sure. He begins to investigate and slowly uncovers a lot of disturbing secrets about the house at Eel Point, many of which involve skeletons in his family's closet as well as in Katrine's.
I don't know what it is about Scandinavia that produces so many excellent murder mystery thrillers. If I had to guess I'd say it's partially due to the long winters when there is nothing much to do but stay inside, try to stay warm, and write about the cold, dark atmosphere that surrounds you.
From Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö to Henning Mankell to Steig Larsson, there have been so many talented writers in this upcoming and very popular genre. Johan Theorin is another in the impressive list, although one that perhaps fewer people in the English-speaking world are familiar with. This is a shame, though, as his writing is excellent and offers something a little bit different from the others.
What's different about Johan Theorin are a couple of things. First, while most other Scandinavian crime thrillers seem to focus on following the work of professional detectives, Theorin's novel centres around the father of the household as he tries to solve his wife's murder himself. His only assistance comes from Tilda Davidsson, a young and inexperienced police officer with troubles of her own.
Secondly, there are hints and echoes of the supernatural in Theorin's work, while most of these types of novel sick to the coldly rational. But in The Darkest Room, Joakim seems to be haunted by ghosts and his actions are even guided by the voices he hears to some extent. However, it's never really made clear whether Joakim is imagining things or not, adding to the sense of mystery and foreboding in the novel.
I really enjoyed reading this novel, but there was one thing that I didn't appreciate about it. In the end, I felt like a few threads of the story had been left unexplained. I won't go into detail about this here as I don't want to give anything away, but I will say that while the major crimes are certainly solved, a few more answers to outstanding little questions wouldn't have gone astray.
Overall, though, this is an excellent novel and I highly recommend it to those who, like me, have recently become addicted to this genre, as well as to those who like Ruth Rendell and Elizabeth George but who haven't dipped their toes into the Scandinavian thriller yet. If you haven't yet, this novel is one of many treats you have in store.