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8 april 2010

In Karin Alvtegen's Missing, new in an American paperback edition in 2009, protagonist Sybilla Forsenström goes off the grid of Sweden's ID, social services, and police networks. She lives on her wits as a grifter, sleeping rough when she has to, melting into provisional identities as needed. Her needs become dire when she is falsely accused of a series of Ripper-like murders. Now, she must use her talents for disguise and disappearance to track down the real killer, before she herself is condemned.

Parts of this premise and plot sound more than a little bit like the late Stieg Larsson's world bestseller The Girl Who Played with Fire. Alvtegen's Missing first appeared in 2000, and Larsson died, leaving the manuscripts of his Lisbeth Salander novels behind, in 2004. It's hard to say whether Missing influenced him or not; for all I know he never read it. Nor are the parallels exact. Forsenström is several years older than Salander, and though she shares some backstory (institutionalization, evil parents) with Salander, she is neither a ferocious computer hacker nor a con artist on Salander's global scale.

In fact, Forsenström must team up with a teenage hacker named Patrik to foil the real murderer. About half of Scandinavia's fictional teens have nothing better to do during their long winters than break into police databases and rearrange the finances of major corporations. Patrik isn't quite in their league yet, but he's doing his apprenticeship.

Until Patrik shows up and the novel takes a kind of Young Adult turn, it is edgy and unsettling. The best thing about Missing is its sense of a life improvised outside the social contract. Perhaps the intensely communal nature of the Swedish state naturally spawns these fantasies of living life off the books. Can one melt away in the welfare state? Even Sybilla Forsenström needs a mailing address. And Sweden, though vast, has a population about that of North Carolina, mostly concentrated in its southern cities (over a fifth of it in metropolitan Stockholm alone). Swedish thrillers give a sense of wanting to break away from a tightly-knit community into the kind of anonymous existence more usually associated with literary New York or Paris.

Missing is swiftly plotted; even some familiar ideas (like having the murderer speak to us anonymously in occasional interchapters) are familiar enough to race over in pursuit of the next plot point. Publishing house Felony & Mayhem has done a nicely sized, shaped, and covered little paperback edition, though one could wish for lighter type, thicker paper, and a few serifs here and there. But Missing has such legitimate pulp energies that it seems bad form to complain about pulpy appearance.

Alvtegen, Karin. Missing. [Saknad, 2000]. Translated by Anna Paterson. 2003. New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2009 repr. of 2008.

French title: Recherchée
German title: Die Flüchtige