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the cruel stars of the night

1 october 2011

At one point in Kjell Eriksson's Cruel Stars of the Night, detective Ann Lindell is on her way to interview a witness named Eriksson. She thinks to herself "It's sick how many Erikssons there are" (234).

For those who hate spoilers: Spoilers follow.

In other words, The Cruel Stars of the Night adds a dash of postmodern hipness to the depressed-detective Scandinavian serial-murder story. And its detectives are only mildly depressed. Lindell is worried about restarting her love life after a long spell on the sidelines. Her colleague Sammy Nilsson is only slightly irritable and snarky, her colleague Ola Haver (less on view here than in The Princess of Burundi) is only moderately disaffected, and her colleague Allan Fredriksson is only a little bit distracted by his birdwatching and woolgathering tendencies.

In a fairly disorganized manner, these sleuths procedural their way towards a killer we meet (and follow via her own thoughts) very early on. We see more of Ann Lindell and more of her eventual quarry Laura Hindersten in The Cruel Stars of the Night than other characters, but the list of dramatis personae is still very long.

Such a diffuse narration may be off-putting for some readers. I like it very much, though. In Eriksson's novels we get a sense of real-world individuals whose attention to their work drifts in and out of focus. Without a distinct protagonist, we see the police procedural as an assembly line rather than a heroic tale. Nothing adds up to an "ah-ha!" moment where the team heads off with Kojak sirens ablaze to collar the perp. Ann Lindell does solve the murder at last – but only when Laura Hindersten confesses, and only when it's a bit late to nab her.

Hindersten herself is the most intriguing character in The Cruel Stars of the Night. Daughter of a massively uptight Petrarch scholar (note to fanboys: don't name your kids after your kicks), she has become a wee bit repressed and has decided to break out of that repression with more than a wee bit of homicide. Oh, and a sexual awakening that makes Emma Bovary look like a Shaker.

The title, incidentally, is from Petrarch: "miro pensoso le crudeli stelle" ["Sadly I gaze upon the cruel stars," as Ebba Segerberg translates (310)]. The nights are long in Swedish winters, with plenty of chances for this Petrarchan activity.

Eriksson, Kjell. The Cruel Stars of the Night. [Nattens grymma stjärnor, 2007.] Trans. Ebba Segerberg. 2007. New York: St. Martin's, 2008.

French title: Les cruelles étoiles de la nuit
German title: Die grausamen Sterne der Nacht