One night the body of a woman is discovered in an ice fishing hut near Kiruna in northern Sweden. Inspector Anna-Maria Mella and her colleague Sven-Erik Stalnacke soon discover the body is that of Inna Wattrang, a senior executive with Kallis Mining company but they can’t so easily learn who killed her. Was it her brother Diddi? Her boss Mauri Kallis? One of the many men she was intimate with? Or something to do with the company’s dealings in strife-torn Uganda? The police meet a wall of silence when trying to interview Inna Wattrang’s family and associates so can only piece together the case slowly.
Åsa Larsson creates memorable characters like few other people I’ve read. In this book, the third of what Larsson says is a 6-book series, there are half a dozen people who slowly but intriguingly reveal themselves over the course of the book. There’s Rebecka Martinsson, the main protagonist of the series, who is struggling with depression after the events of the previous two books. At the beginning of the book she is institutionalised and throughout the story she continues to struggle in a very realistic way. Each of the other characters also displays their own psychological problems including Inna’s brother Diddi whose dependence on drugs makes him increasingly erratic. Mauri Kallis and his sister Ester had separate but equally fractured upbringing and this plays out in the disturbed adults both have become. Somehow Larsson made me feel as if I were inside the heads of this disparate and disturbed group of people and their different perspectives on their worlds were utterly fascinating.
For 90% of this book the plot builds at a steady pace with details being teased out gently as each person’s story adds another morsel. Unfortunately the final 10% reads a bit like someone bought Michael Bey in to finish it off and the high-action sequences offer a jarring conclusion to an otherwise excellent story. It’s not that I’m opposed to thriller-style endings but sometimes they are out-of-place.
I certainly don’t subscribe to the view that all Scandinavian crime fiction is bleak but this is one title that does fit that category. Even the usually optimistic and upbeat Anna-Maria Mella has her share of gloomy moments in this book and I have to say it was nice to be able to walk out into the bright Australian summer sunshine after finishing. However, don’t be turned off by the dark nature of this superbly translated tale because it contains some of the finest characters you’ll read: you probably won’t like them all but I doubt you’ll forget any of them in a hurry.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating: 4/5
Translator: Marlaine Delargy, Publisher: Bantam Dell , ISBN: 978-0-385-34101-1, Length: 381 pages, Setting: Sweden, present-day
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
The Black Path has been reviewed perceptively (as always) by Norman at Crime Scraps, Barbara at Reviewing the Evidence (who seemed to share the exact same reactions as I did to both the good and not-so-good aspects of this book) and Maxine at Euro Crime
A fine and fair review, as always.
Here is what I said about the ending: “The quite dramatic ending is hard-boiled and non-Swedish.”
Bernadette – I agree with Dorte about the quality of your reviews. There are certainly some novels that benefit from a “thriller” ending, but if that kind of ending doesn’t fit, you’re right that it can be jarring.
Happy New Year Bernadette and thanks a lot for your kind comment on my latest post. In fact, I wanted to thank you for all comments left in 2009. Blogging wouldn’t be half as much fun without comments and commenting. I look forward to more reading and blogging in 2010!
I read The Black Path some years ago, and while I’ve read more of her books, I do find Aasa Larsson a tad too bleak for me, and I’m Scandinavian!
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Great review, Bernadette. I loved this book – I can’t remember the exact details of the “thriller” ending but I do remember enjoying the book and in particular the sad story of the young woman who trod “the black path” at the end. I do hope that the remaining three books in this series are translated. Apparently it is not a given that they will be, given current commercial climate.
Sharing a comment/review I did on The Black Path on Amazon.com in February, 2008, before it came out in English:
Just read the third of her “Rebeka Martinsson” books, to be published in July of 2008. The first two were Sunstorm (in U.S.)/Savage Altar (in U.K.) and The Blood Spilt.
Larsson holds on to her moody central character Rebeka, dispatching her back up above the Arctic Circle to her hometown of Kiruna; Rebeka, depressive after the events of The Blood Spilt, is recuperating both psychologically and physically (a facial scar mars her appearance now). But a local prosecutor recruits her for legal work, and with the discovery of a murdered body in an ice-fishing house, a long and involved story kicks off. Rebeka does not play that central a role here, although her wits and savvy about financial transactions lead her to suggest investigative technicques and to make some quite astonishing (and accurate!) conclusions about the international corporate dealings of Kallis Mining, a Swedish firm driven by upstart-from-nowhere Mauri Kallis.
Her Internet investigations recall for me a similar technique used by Liza Marklund for her reporter Annika Bergson, especially in the latest novel Livstid (Life Sentence, not yet translated into English).
In Larsson’s The Black Path the police team in Kiruna, Anne-Marie and Sven-Eric, are active in the investigations and sent south to the Stockholm area and injected into the grisly events of a large-scale final showdown. But Larsson’s story is not about them either — rather, she spends a great deal of loving time depicting the history and psychology of mining CEO Kallis and a brother-and-sister team, Diddi and Inna Wattrang, who are Swedish aristocrats of few means, expensive tastes, and few morals. And if that’s not enough, Larsson creates a half-sister to Mauri — get this: Mauri’s psychotic mother was eventually confined to an institution, was impregnated by an Indian (Hindu) attendant, and insisted on having the love child, Ester. Ester is of no world — so inhibited as to appear nearly autistic, she is a talented artist and a psychic who has inherited her powers from her Sami stepmother and stepgrandmother. Her stepmother dies and her extravagantly dreamy step-aunt manages to persuade Mauri’s buddy Inna to receive Ester into Mauri’s estate home.
And I haven’t even gotten to the main intrigue, which is a messy Swedish imagining of how international mining companies conspire to try to overthrow President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (incumbent today) and as a result become the targets of a hit team dispatched to Sweden.
Larsson uses flashbacks constantly and dips into the consciousness of almost every character. Toward the middle of the book, one begins to wonder if this mess will ever hold together.
Okay, far fetched, paranoid toward Africa, toward the upper class, and toward capitalism generally, and frequently dwelling on bleak moods. But Åsa Larsson does write focused, short chapters and creates distinct characters; she keeps these balls juggling between scenes and through unexpected time sequences. The final show-down is a nail biter, too. Most of the characters we really care about come through scathed but intact, while most of those who fall have been shown to us as morally repugnant.
As entertainment: B+. As literature: B-. I’m looking forward to a future novel that will stick with the characters already developed — Rebeka, Anne-Marie and Sven-Eric.
I agree with Bernadette about this book and the ending. I was with it until that last 10% when all hell broke loose. It seemed kind of ludicrous to me. Also, the politics of it were annoying. I wasn’t sure why a chief culprit was saved. And I agree that the book should wind up focusing on the three main characters and not go off on a wild ride at the end, although that’s what publishers may be asking now of mystery writers–international themes with thriller style.