Review: Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin

Title: Echoes from the Dead

Author: Johan Theorin

Publisher: Delta Trade Paperbacks [2008]

ISBN: 978-0-385-34221-6

In the early 1970’s a young boy named Jens disappeared on a remote island in Sweden. Twenty years later his mother, Julia, and his grandfather, Gerlof, attempt to unravel the events surrounding the disappearance.

For want of a better word the book is literary in style, reminding me of David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars in the way it depicts very personal events that take place in a wider historical context. It has the same haunting sense of location too. When done badly the kind of descriptive writing Theorin has produced is dull but when done well, as is the case here, it is as gripping as any action-based thriller. I was thoroughly captivated from the moment five year-old Jens climbed the garden wall and headed into the fog.

The structure of the novel is engaging too. The chapters are short and told from several different perspectives. Some are from Julia or Gerloff’s point of view and some take place in the past of Nils Kant, the man who it seems was responsible for Jens’ disappearance. This kind of leap-frogging between times and people can go badly awry but, again, Theorin has demonstrated superior writing skills in achieving a very understandable plot that is beautifully layered. But don’t be fooled: there’s plenty of real drama here too.

As good as all of those elements are, the characters in this book are even better. They’re complex and credible and I have such strong images of them all in my head that it’s like a movie playing.  There’s nothing stereotypical about any of them and they continued to surprise me right to the very end. Julia, the middle aged nurse who struggled to deal with her son’s disappearance isn’t nearly as two-dimensional as the blurb makes her sound and Gerlof, her octogenarian father is an unlikely but wholly wonderful hero. The island of Oland too is a character in its way and is just as memorable and just as deftly depicted as the people.

As is often the way with the best crime fiction the book is about much more than solving the mystery. It’s about family and yearning and grief and people finding out that they’re tougher than they think. All of which combined to make it one of those rarest of reading experiences that makes me give thanks to the universe that there are people who write. I feel honoured to have discovered Echoes from the Dead.

My rating 5/5

Other stuff

Reviewed at It’s A Crime in August 2008

Reviewed by Norman on Euro Crime in August 2008

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8 Responses to Review: Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin

  1. Norm/Uriah says:

    Pleased we agree on this one it is an exceptional novel.

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  2. Cathy says:

    I really enjoyed this book, too. I read it a few months ago, and it’s still with me.

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  3. Maxine says:

    Agreed, a superb novel. I think you’ve identified the reasons I liked it, too. Very good character studies, evoking emotions yet a good plot. I like books where the solution is somewhere buried in the past. And of course, as you say, it is well-written/translated. The author visited Harrogate last year and said that this book is one of a quartet – he says that some of the characters return in future books but the real “main character” is the island.

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  4. Cathy says:

    Don’t look now, Bernadette, but you’ve just received an award!

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  5. Lourdes says:

    I also loved this book, and think you’ve truly captured what makes it great in your review.

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