Jan/Feb 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

A Vivid Look at Swedish Crime

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

The Torso.
Helen Tursten, translated by Katarina Emilie Tucker.
Soho Crime. 2007. 341 pp.
ISBN 1569474532.

The Glass Devil.
Helen Tursten, translated by Katarina Emilie Tucker
Soho Crime. 2007. 311 pp.
ISBN 1569474524.

My addiction to mystery novels made itself known early, and has since snowballed out of control. The way my brain goes to work at filtering out just which out of the hundreds of clues thrown at me could be important, is as great of a mind-workout as an hour of transcendental meditation. The problem is most mystery writers—especially Swedish ones—portray generic characters with tedious lives and bland perspectives. Helene Tursten's heroine Inspector Irene Huss couldn't be further from generic however. Her descriptions are vivid—even though I'm a vegetarian, the rich culinary references had my stomach growling throughout both novels, and her sad sense of acceptance is as realistic as her struggle to be at the same time a fearless detective, an attractive woman and wife, and an thoughtful mother.

In The Torso, a half-rotten, butchered-to-pieces torso surfaces on a beach just outside Gothenburg, Sweden. The police's only clue is an extraordinary tattoo on the victim's neck. This sends Inspector Huss yo-yoing between Copenhagen, where a similar crime happened two years ago, and her hometown. When the next victim turns out to be a friend of the family, things start to get personal for Irene. Then the people she questions start dropping like flies, and she fears not only that she will fail to find this vile murderer, but also that her own life is in danger.

Though it would be easy to get distracted by the violence, perversion, and hair-rising chill that rises from every page of this novel, what stands out the most is Tursten's characterizations. From the hard working, down to earth, jujitsu-practicing-and-caffeine-addicted Irene, to the handsome yet mysterious Peter Moeller and the lazy, sexist Jonny Blom, who most likely suffers from a drinking problem, the personas moving this story forward are as fascinating as they are convincing. They are bound to make readers bob their heads in agreement as they recognize their coworkers/in-laws/college buddies.

The Glass Devil is a considerably less gory tale, although none the less shocking. When a pastor, along with his wife and thirty-something son, are found shot to death, Inspector Huss is forced to take an in-depth look at the workings of the Swedish church; a territory previously unexplored by her. She finds not only corruption, gossip, jealousy and intrigues worthy of an Emmy, but she catches a glimpse of the ghastliest and most inhuman kind of evil.

As Sweden is famous for its secularized view of religion, it comes as no surprise when in The Glass Devil, Tursten places a well-aimed kick in the balls of the Christian church. The problem is, she does a great deal of picking on the more recently sprung up society of "new age" practitioners as well—especially in Irene's interactions with the fair Eva Moeller. As we dismiss both traditional and explorative approaches to spirituality, we've got to ask ourselves: should atheism really be the only option?

Just as they should, the plots of both novels have their fair share of twists and turns, dead ends, moments of enlightenment, and frustration. The crimes are intriguing, as are the investigations that follow. Still, the twinges of rage that came over me each time work called for my attention and I had to put the books down, seemed somewhat overstated... until I realized that these novels were more than just mysteries to me. They were returns to a Scandinavia I haven't experienced since elementary school. Sure, I lived in Gothenburg until I was twenty-three. But the world portrayed with such accuracy in Tursten's novels—the Sweden of row-houses, band practice, neighborhood pizzerias run by Lebanese immigrants, and korv stroganoff, has very little to do with the world of college students. So little, in fact, that it had managed to escape my memory completely.

I would advise anyone interested in the cultural dynamics of Scandinavia to pick up one of Helene Tursten's novels. The descriptions of everything from the weather and the Nordic mindsets, to the gay community, the small-town gossipers of Kullahult, and Irene's relationship to her husband, are right on. Feminism, multiculturalism and worldliness clasp with strip clubs, violence against homosexuals, and a dose of good old-fashioned narrow-mindedness. I love how the middle-class life of Irene and her family contrast the underground Gothenburg, where women sell themselves for coke, MC gangs attack each other with grenades, and desperate men are killed over heroin money. This world exists side by side with the family one; with Volvos, gardening, and men on maternity leave. Yet most people never catch the slightest glimpse of it.

While I can think of a million reasons to dig into Tursten's novels—characters that will give you a whole new appreciation for the people in your life, plots that'll deprive you of sleep, along with a realistic portrait of a culture unknown to most Americans—the main one is that the novels are so vivid. Two pages into either of them, you will have disappeared into Irene's world completely. The hairs in the back of your neck will rise with hers, you will cry with her, laugh with her, and your heart will race with hers when branches rustle in the adjacent trees while she's taking her dog for a late night walk. You will retch at the nauseating smell sipping out through Emil Bentsen's mail slot. Your mouth will water when Irene shares a late night lobster dinner with Peter Moeller. You will feel Irene's pain when she's attacked by two robbers in London and pulled into a taxi. The stories are so loaded with sensory details, it would be impossible not to get drawn in. Which is exactly what we want from a novel, right?


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