Monday, August 20, 2012

Scandinavian Crime Fiction: Mons Kallentoft, MIDWINTER BLOOD

There's a "wisdom saying" in some groups that's based on the shape of the hand when pointing with one finger: "When you point a finger at someone else, you have three fingers pointing back at you." The usual meaning is, we see the flaw in others that we also have in ourselves -- but are less likely to see them there.

Single mother Malin Fors is a workaholic, even by the usual standards of police superintendents. Her teenage daughter manages supper alone frequently, and her ex-husband isn't always around to fill the gaps. Thirty-four, she's tough and well recognized in her town, Linköping, Sweden, where she and her partner Zeke pick up a case that's going to be front-page news ... and not just because Malin is having an affair with an aggressive journalist, either. Hanging from a tree outside town is the naked body of an enormous man, and no matter the actual cause of death, the wounds on the corpse are so massive and dramatic that right away there's a suggestion of ritual: of a midwinter sacrifice (that's the UK title, in fact) or, as Mons Kallentoft's US edition names it, MIDWINTER BLOOD.

For Malin Fors, the investigation quickly turns complex and risky, with at least two highly disfunctional and dangerous families acting out their own wounds on the society that inflicted them. "Love and death are neighbors. Their faces are one and the same," Fors muses. It's a harsh judgment, but one that her investigation promises to repeat.

Readers of Scandinavian crime will find Fors's world as bloody but in many ways less bleak than, say, the seasonal depression evoked by Henning Mankell or the sexual perversion of Steig Larsson. At least the darkness here is in motion, not frozen into place or forced onto all participants. Moreover, Fors -- athletic, young, emotionally vibrant and a good parent, when she's home -- usually knows the right moves to make, whether inside the police force political net, or on a crime scene, or while sweating off the previous night's self-indulgent drinking. Whatever the character and social flaws are that build repeatedly to erupt in crime in Linköping, they're not hers.
"There are still people living like that in Sweden today," she says. "Completely shut off from everything. It's anachronistic in an almost bizarre way."

"I don't know about that," Zeke says. Then he reaches for the first explanation that seems to come into his mind. "It's benefits," he says. "It's all because of benifits. I bet the whole lot of them are getting unemployment benefits, social support, and everything else too. And the child support for a horde of kids like that must amount to a small fortune every month."

"I'm not so sure about benefits," Malin says. "Maybe they don't get anything. But anyway. This is the twenty-first centure. In Sweden. And here's a family that seems to live entirely according to its own rules. ... You could see the fury in Adam Murvall's eyes."

"There are several of them, they could have done it together. ... We'll have to get a warrant so we can check their guns."
Yet time and again, as Malin notices the neglect and abuse among the criminals she's pursuing, and the tragedy for the victims, she's left her daughter alone yet again. Savoring the reading of this tightly plotted and well-written book, I caught that reflection time and again, that sense of a finger pointed toward the violent and psychopathic, while three gently curled other fingers cupped the knowledge that there is no such thing as perfect parenting for any of us -- and the choices made by Malin may create smaller wounds that still fester, still lead to something dark and regrettable.

There are three more Malin Fors books ready, in translation, to follow this crime fiction debut. I'm particularly curious to see whether Kallentoft's others include the paranormal aspect that haunts MIDWINTER BLOOD -- is the style an artifact of the plot, or a trademark of the author? With one finger, I can point to the pace, timing, and tension of the book ... and with the other three, to the series as it continues to be shaped by an author whose first fame flowed from a literary novel, but who now seems to have found both his own voice and the voices of our wounded, in the Malin Fors books. Next ones: Spring Remains, Summer Death, Autumn Sonata.

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