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sun storm

30 january 2011

Sweden's capacity to produce authors of first-rate detective novels borders on the uncanny. This is a country of nine million – a population slightly more than that of New Jersey – with about 90 murders per year for the whole country (about a third of New Jersey's murder rate). Yet Sweden produces murder novelists the way the Dominican Republic produces shortstops. The whole country seems to be a training camp for crime writers. And good ones: not many benchwarmers make it out of Swedish and into international translation.

I'm slowly catching up with miscellaneous but excellent Swedish crime series. In Sun Storm, Åsa Larsson introduced Rebecka Martinsson, a barely-coping but tenacious investigator who cuts through the deceptions of a religious cult based in her far-north home town. Rebecka is a lawyer, and a tax lawyer at that. Like Thóra Gudmundsdóttir in Yrsa Sigurdardóttir's Icelandic series, Rebecka is a lawyer who gets pulled into murder mysteries despite herself, and not a little at the expense of her initially scattered attempts to deal with everyday life.

Sun Storm is unusual in giving us a private investigator (Rebecka) in tandem with a policewoman (Anna-Maria Mella) who is equally sympathetic. Sun Storm is therefore part wrong-woman novel and part police procedural. As long as it's Sweden and it's freezing, such departures from generic convention are fine with me.

If Sun Storm has a flaw, it's perhaps that it has too many wacko characters. Swedish master detectives like Martin Beck and Kurt Wallander tend to deal with a single deranged killer at a time, even if he's very, very deranged and very prolific. But Rebecka and Anna-Maria find themselves dealing with a whole church gone stark raving. These people are so sick in the head that you have little confidence in their ability to simultaneously run a large tax-fraud operation.

But run it they do, and conveniently, Rebecka is there to nail them on VAT irregularities while Anna-Maria is there to get them for Murder One. All the while, Anna-Maria is hugely pregnant, a character note cribbed directly from Frances McDormand in Fargo but well-handled all the same.

Several other of Larsson's novels have now appeared in English, and they're now on my ever-burgeoning lifetime checklist . . .

Larsson, Åsa. Sun Storm. [Solstorm, 2003.] Translated by Marlaine Delargy. New York: Random House, 2006.