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bis dein zorn sich legt

10 june 2011

Bis dein Zorn sich legt is the fourth novel in Åsa Larsson's "Kiruna" series, where in the far north of lethal Sweden two women – DA Rebecka Martinsson and police inspector Anna-Maria Mella – solve the usual baffling murders with roots in the grim Scandinavian past. Larsson's novels are anything but the usual, though: they're suspenseful and character-driven, with strong psychological insights and robust plots.

I wouldn't go quite as far as blurber Tobias Gohlis, who says on the back cover of the 2010 German paperback edition that "Man liest dieses Buch mit Staunen, als wären die Welt und der Krimi gerade neu erfunden. [You read this book with amazement, as if the world and the detective story had just been newly invented.]" In fact, for my money, it's good that the detective story not be reinvented with each new title. Larsson is very good at ringing changes on the old themes and structures of the "Krimi"; she doesn't need to remake the genre as she goes.

Bis dein Zorn sich legt takes up one of the insistent themes of the recent Scandinavian murder mystery: a sinister Nazi past. One would not think that Hitler's legacy would lie heavy on the literary imagination of Scandinavia. But a surprising number of Second World War secrets lie beneath the soil of the Scandinavian detective novel. Swedish writer Eva-Marie Liffner's Imago moves across the decades to unearth WW2-era mysteries in the German/Danish borderlands. Jo Nesbø's Redbreast ranges from contemporary Norway to the 1940s Eastern Front; Yrsa Sigurdardóttir's My Soul to Take finds long-buried Nazi shame in Iceland. Postwar neoNazis populate Stieg Larsson's trilogy. In Henning Mankell's Return of the Dancing Master, horrors of the 1940s lead to murder a half-century later.

And so with Bis dein Zorn sich legt: Larsson's characters are willing to kill to cover up what they, or their parents, did (or didn't do) in a long-ago war that Sweden never officially took part in. Perhaps there is little to kill for in postwar Scandinavia; the crime fiction that has poured out of the region in recent years seems inevitably to locate murderous motives in the wartime past.

Much of Bis dein Zorn sich legt is narrated by the ghost of one of the murder victims. This device has been used before (notably in the film Sunset Boulevard and in Orhan Pamuk's novel My Name is Red), but it's deployed to good effect here. Åsa Larsson moves from one character's perspective to another in an easy narrative omniscience that jibes well with the supernatural consciousness of Wilma, the ghostly narrator. Bis dein Zorn sich legt is not altogether a magical-realist mystery, but a key inciting event comes when Wilma's ghost visits DA Rebecka Martinsson in a dream to tell her that her death was no accident. Rebecka's dream kicks off the murder investigation, and becomes the talk of the town.

In my erratic path across many mystery series, I don't often follow the author's order (except when it's literally alphabetical). And so with Åsa Larsson: after reading her debut novel Sun Storm in the English translation, I blithely skipped the second and third to read Bis dein Zorn sich legt, the fourth, in the German translation. As a result, I've missed some of the intervening accumulated texture of the series. In Sun Storm, Rebecka Martinsson wandered back into her murderous home town; by Bis dein Zorn sich legt she lives and works there full-time, despite pressures from her part-time boyfriend to rejoin him in Stockholm. She's accumulated quite a legend in the mean-novels, and her exploits in the fourth aren't going to do anything to diminish it.

Larsson's novel will appear in English later this year as Until Thy Wrath Be Past. The title comes from the Book of Job, where it figures in the novel's epigram, a key passage that the characters read and return to as they contemplate the sins of the fathers (and mothers) that are being visited on the next generation. Bis dein Zorn sich legt is notably good at evoking sympathy for one of its murderers, a man beset by an evil mother, an unspeakable brother, and a cruel, imperious father. It also represents desire notably well, as Larsson, a woman writer, imagines how men, in a believably desperate way, desire her heroines. The book may not invent the world anew, but it does a good job representing the one we live in.

Larsson, Åsa. Bis dein Zorn sich legt. [Till dess din vrede upphör, 2008.] Translated by Gabriele Haefs. 2009. München: Random House, 2010.

UPDATE 08.24.12: I have now read most of Larsson's second and third novels in German translation, to considerable disappointment. Weiße Nacht, the second, is just static; the story, which starts very much like that of Sun Storm, goes nowhere for scores of pages at a time, as the author patiently prepares the ground for her characters to act upon, presumably, in the chapters I never got to. Der schwarze Steg, the third, doesn't have that problem; it's got an evocative, puzzling mystery story (dead woman in an ice-fishing cabin where she doesn't belong even if alive) and some intriguing police procedure. But Der schwarze Steg fails where Bis dein Zorn sich legt succeeds: in its attempt to parallel the investigation with a character study of its villains. The para-plot is so uninteresting that the investigation can be read entirely separately from the background story: until the two converge, and you realize that the solution of the mystery is a desperately boring tale of skullduggery in multinational commerce. But we can say this: Larsson's fourth Kiruna novel is the best of the set, and that bodes well for the fifth (now out, in summer 2012, in Swedish and Danish, but not in any language that I can read).