Crime round-up

An extraordinary novel by the Swedish writing duo is the highlight of Joan Smith’s round-up of recent crime novels

Sunday Times, 25 September 2011

When it comes to capital punishment, the gulf between the United States and Europe could hardly be wider. The spectacle of convicted criminals spending years on death row in American jails appears cruel and inhuman, and the tense countdown to an execution in Ohio provides the starting point for an extraordinary novel by the Swedish crime-writing duo, Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom.

Cell 8 (Quercus £12.99/ebook £10.83), translated by Kari Dickson, ventures into territory that’s previously been addressed by American crime writers, notably John Grisham, but has a twist all of its own. After a searing account of the execution of a 65-year-old man in Marcusville, Ohio, the action makes a startling leap to a brawl on a ferry between Finland and Sweden. John Schwarz is a singer on the boat, entertaining bored and often drunk passengers. When he sees a man pestering a woman on the dance floor, he wades in and beats him unconscious.

Schwarz’s arrest reveals that the singer is not who he claims to be, turning up an unexpected link to the condemned cell in Marcusville. Schwarz’s real name is John Meyer Frey, whom we last saw on death row in Ohio, waiting to be executed for the murder of his girlfriend when he was only 17. More astonishing is the news that Frey supposedly died of heart failure in his cell before he could be put to death by the state.

Soon the Americans are demanding the “dead” man back, so that they can carry out the execution he escaped, and Detective Superintendent Ewert Grens of the Stockholm police has an international incident on his hands. Roslund is a journalist, and Hellstrom a former convict, and they use this riveting setup to make a passionate case against the death penalty. The novel is taut with suspense to the end, despite an improbable element in the plot when the authors’ campaigning instinct gets the better of them.

Kristina Ohlsson’s Unwanted (Simon & Schuster £12.99/ebook £8.49), translated by Sarah Death, introduces an intriguing female protagonist to the male-dominated ranks of Swedish detectives. Fredrika Bergman is a novelty, a civilian investigator attached to an elite unit of the Stockholm police, and she’s not convinced that she’s made the right choice of job. Her boss, Alex Recht, isn’t sure that she’s going to fit into the team, either, and he’s sceptical when she suggests a new line of inquiry in a child-abduction case. A little girl was snatched from a train at Stockholm central station and the most likely culprit seems to be her father, who is quickly revealed as a habitual abuser of his estranged wife. But Bergman is suspicious about an unidentified woman who lured the mother from the train during an unscheduled stop, leaving the child alone for the rest of the journey. The author is a security policy analyst for the National Swedish Police Board, and she uses her inside knowledge to great effect in this compelling debut.

The latest volume in Lin Anderson’s series of crime novels featuring a Glasgow-based forensic scientist, Rhona MacLeod, reveals a fascinating aspect of the city’s history in Picture Her Dead (Hodder £19.99/ebook £10.99). An art student, Jude Evans, is photographing derelict cinemas for a college project, recording the art-deco features hidden behind run-down parades of shops, when she disappears. The alarm is raised by her friend Liam who also happens to be McLeod’s son, whom she is getting to know after giving him up for adoption many years ago. Their relationship is fragile but Liam asks for her help when he tries to retrace Jude’s steps, and together they uncover a gruesome series of murders that seems to be linked to pornographic films.

Val McDermid’s novel The Wire in the Blood was adapted for television and became a huge success, despite being criticised for its graphic violence. It pitted her police profiler Tony Hill against Jacko Vance, a charming television presenter who also happened to be a particularly vicious serial killer. One of the problems with the novel was that in real life serial killers tend to be inadequate — that’s why they’re serial killers — and the preening, confident Vance was never a convincing candidate. Now he’s back in The Retribution (Little, Brown £18.99/ebook £8.99), a truly dreadful novel that combines the hunt for another unlikely serial killer with Vance’s escape from prison. McDermid’s characters are all cut from the same cloth, histrionic and utterly lacking in subtlety, but that may be a mercy as Vance embarks on his predictably sanguinary revenge.

Four elderly men have something to celebrate in Hakan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery (Mantle £16.99), translated by Laurie Thompson — a 1998 novel that is being published in English for the first time. Nesser’s international career has taken off more slowly than some of his stellar Swedish contemporaries, but his cerebral, unshowy fiction is always worth reading. His detective, Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, is off-stage for most of the novel, leaving his overworked team to investigate the murder and disappearance of two of the four old friends celebrating a lottery win. Beautifully crafted, the novel once again displays ­Nesser’s trademark compassion and insight into human nature.

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