Superior Scandi noir

Sunday Times, 5 June 2016

Sweden has produced some of the world’s top crime writers in recent years, offering insights into its fragile political consensus. The country’s response to terrorism and the refugee crisis are at the heart of Hjorth and Rosenfeldt’s stunning new novel, The Man Who Wasn’t There (Century £16.99), translated by Marlaine Delargy.

The authors may be unfamiliar to British readers but they have an impressive pedigree: Hans Rosenfeldt created the hit TV series The Bridge, while Michael Hjorth is a screenwriter and producer. The novel opens dramatically with the discovery of six bodies in a mass grave in a remote area of Sweden. Two of the adults are identified as a Dutch couple who disappeared during a hiking holiday in 2003, but the identity of the other four is a mystery.

The team sent from Stockholm to run the investigation includes a narcissistic psychologist, Sebastian Bergman. He is a brilliant creation, displaying none of the redeeming features we have come to expect from even the most depressed Nordic investigator; his appalling behaviour contrasts with the grief of the other characters, including an Afghan refugee whose husband has disappeared. This is a complex and compelling novel which invites comparisons with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.

Cecilia Eckback also writes about mass murder in Sweden but her context could hardly be more different. In The Month of the Midnight Sun (Hodder £16.99) is set in 1856, when three men are found hacked to death in a remote mining village where Christian settlers live uneasily alongside the original Sami people. A mining expert, Magnus Stille, is sent from Stockholm to investigate the murders by the Minister of Justice, who also happens to be his father-in-law.

Magnus’s cover story is that he is carrying out a survey of iron deposits in the area but his inquiries are hampered by the insomnia that quickly begins to torment him in the relentless daylight. Ekback lives in Canada but she was born in Sweden and has a tremendous sense of place, vividly conveying the desolation of the landscape in this haunting novel.

Stephen King strikes an elegiac tone in End of Watch (Hodder £20), the final novel in a trilogy which began with Mr Mercedes. Bill Hodges is a retired cop with serious health problems, but he’s drawn back into an old case involving a mass murderer who deliberately drove a stolen Mercedes into a crowd. The killer, Brady Hartfield, has been unresponsive in a brain injury clinic for years when some of his surviving victims start killing themselves. Hodges believes Hartfield is faking, but the only link between the suicides is an obsolete hand-held computer loaded with a mesmerising game. A serial killer who drives his victims to suicide is a novel idea but King’s use of supernatural powers sits oddly in a crime novel.

Parker Bilal’s superb series of novels set in Mubarak’s Egypt has now reached the period just after the Iraq war. In City of Jackals (Bloomsbury £7.99), the country’s corrupt officials are struggling to contain an influx of refugees from the conflict in Egypt’s southern neighbour, Sudan. It is a bittersweet moment for Bilal’s protagonist, Makana, who fled the Sudanese capital Khartoum years ago and is scraping a living as a private detective in Cairo.

When a severed head is washed up in the Nile, Makana is sure the gruesome find belongs to one of his compatriots. He is supposed to be investigating the disappearance of an Egyptian student but the two cases turn out to have strange connections, leading him to uncover a horrific trade in the city’s most vulnerable people.

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