Echoes from the Dead (Öland Quartet 1) by Johan Theorin

Unburying the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Twenty years ago, in the midst of a dense fog on the Swedish island of Öland, a little boy disappeared and has never been found. Now his mother Julia lives in Gothenburg, depressed and drinking too much, unable to accept that her son is dead. The child’s grandfather, Gerlof, is an old man now, his mobility restricted by a kind of rheumatic syndrome that causes him terrible pain when it flares up. He still lives on Öland in an assisted living facility, and one day he receives an anonymous parcel in the mail containing a child’s sandal. With the help of Julia and some of his old friends, Gerlof sets out to finally discover the truth of what happened to little Jens. He suspects that a man called Nils Kant had something to do with it, but that can’t be since Nils died years before Jens disappeared. But still…

This falls into the thoughtful area of crime fiction rather than the action thriller. It concentrates as much on Julia’s struggle to come to terms with the loss of her son and on Gerlof’s efforts to make amends for the guilt he feels over not protecting his grandchild as it does on solving the mystery. The second strand, which is just as central, tells of Nils Kant’s life – the crimes he committed as a child and young man that led him to flee Öland. The two stories are told side by side in alternating sections, and both are equally interesting and absorbing. The major strengths of the book are the characterisation of these three people and the great sense of place Theorin creates, bringing the island of Öland vividly to life. The major weakness is common to most contemporary crime – the book is far too long for its content. It could lose a third of its length and be better for it.

The police gave up looking for Jens long ago, assuming that he must have wandered to the nearby shore in the fog and drowned in the sea. But when one of Gerlof’s friends dies – perhaps by accident, perhaps not – the local police officer Lennart Henriksson is willing to listen to Gerlof’s theories and soon a friendship grows up between him and Julia, born of shared feelings of loss. Lennart’s father had been murdered when he was a child and his sense of grief has never left him. He and Julia are able to offer some comfort to each other, and gradually their feelings towards each other deepen into affection and perhaps more.

Nils’ story takes us back to his childhood, when already the signs were there that he would grow up to be a danger to those around him. Selfish and lacking empathy, he commits one terrible act after another but for a while he’s protected by being the son of a wealthy woman who wields power locally through owning the business that provides much of the employment in the area. It is only when he finally does something that can’t be hidden or explained away that he is forced to flee, but he always wants to come back to the island, and to his mother, the only person he has ever really loved. We follow him through his long exile before learning whether he ever succeeds in returning. It’s an excellent portrayal of a severely damaged individual – Nils is undoubtedly monstrous but Theorin also manages to make him pitiable so that the reader’s horror at his actions is laced with a touch of sympathy. Nils’ moral compass is so badly broken it’s hard to condemn him as much as we would someone who knowingly chose to do evil things.

Johan Theorin

The island itself was once home to a vibrant fishing community, but times change and the small boats of the locals can no longer compete with the industrial fishing methods of the big companies on the mainland. Now Öland has become a summer resort for mainlanders – full of life during the summer months but quiet and almost deserted in the winter except for the one small town on the island and a few scattered elderly residents still clinging on to the homes they have always known. Theorin is equally good at describing the alvar – the barren landscape covered in grasses and shrubs where Nils spends his youth out hunting hares with his shotgun – or the village of Julia’s youth, now closed up for the winter with only two or three residents dotted around. He uses the emptiness and loneliness of the village to great effect in creating an air of danger and tension as Julia, living in Gerlof’s old boathouse, gets drawn deeper into the investigation.

I thoroughly enjoyed this despite the fact that, as I said earlier, it’s longer than it should be. I did have a good idea of the solution from fairly early on but it didn’t matter because the crime in the past took second place to the character studies and the events of the present. The tone is dark but both Julia and Gerlof are sympathetic characters which stops it from becoming too bleak. Having previously enjoyed the fourth book in the quartet (yeah, I know – backwards as usual) I’m looking forward to reading the other two.

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38 thoughts on “Echoes from the Dead (Öland Quartet 1) by Johan Theorin

  1. I’m so happy you really liked this one, FictionFan. The Gerlof character is terrific, in my opinion, and I do like the atmosphere. Theorin weaves the physical and psychological setting quite well, I think. There’s also a great sense of the history of the place, too, which adds to the story. It’s good to hear you liked those things, too.

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    • Gerlof’s age is so well done – he doesn’t suddenly turn him into a realistic action man but at the same time he doesn’t make him a sad, pathetic figure. And the setting is great – I loved how he used the emptiness of the off-season to such good effect. There’s been a spookiness about both of the books in the series that I’ve read, without them drifting off into the supernatural. Human evil is always scarier… 😀

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    • I’ve only read two so far and they both worked perfectly as standalones, with the only links being the character of the old man, Gerlof, and the setting of the island. And I’m not certain Gerlof is in the other two – I think it’s really the island that he’s used as the basis for the series.

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    • As you know, I’m off contemporary crime myself at the moment, but despite the usual overpadding this one is very well written, with both the characterisation and setting drawn very well. A good way to visit Scandi!

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  2. I’m glad you enjoyed it, but I have a feeling it might be a little to bleak for me at the moment. I’m currently reading one that takes place in Kentucky in the 1930s and the poverty is wearing me down… despite the fact it’s a good story.

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    • I usually find books about missing or murdered children too bleak too, but because the boy disappeared twenty years earlier it meant that the characters weren’t suffering from raw grief and that meant the tone didn’t get too dark. It was more about that dreaded word “closure” – there was a sense that even the mother was now ready to move on if she could just finally discover what happened to her son. I do find in general that my patience for books that want to harrow my soul is less than it used to be…

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  3. This does sound like my kind of read. The setting, mystery, characters all sound great. I am not one to jump in mid-series so I’ll look out for the other books. Great review!

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    • I’ve only read two of the four so far but they’ve both been excellent – he’s such a good writer and the island is a great setting. I’ve probably confused you because I’m reading them out of order, but this one actually is the first one in the quartet… 😀

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  4. This might be too dismal for me to read right now. Perhaps I can wait until this summer, when days are longer and sunnier! That said, I’m curious if this quartet needs to be read in order? And are the others as “too-long” as this one?

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    • I don’t think they need to be read in order – certainly the two I’ve read both worked fine as standalones. Ha – you know me, I think all contemporary crime is too long! But these are no longer than most and better written and more interesting than most too. Funnily enough, this one isn’t as bleak as it sounds – because the boy disappeared so long ago the grief isn’t too raw. Even the mother is ready to move on if she could only finally find out what happened to her son.

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  5. I read the first three books in this series years ago, but somehow I missed the fact that a fourth one had been published. Thanks for reminding me about it! I can’t remember much about the books now, except that I thought Gerlof was a great character and I loved the descriptions of Oland.

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    • It’s a few years since I read the fourth one but I thought it was great – even better than this one. Gerlof is so well done – I love that he never turns into an unrealistic action man but he’s not shown as a useless old man either. Very sympathetic portrayal of ageing, I thought. And the island is a great setting! I really mustn’t leave it so long to read the other two… 😀

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  6. At first I didn’t think this would be for me, the missing child, grieving mother and guilt-ridden grandfather are such a sad trio, but there is something about Swedish fiction that is really appealing. I’m already looking forward to you finding the earlier books.

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  7. This sounds like the perfect book to read one dark and perhaps snowy February. It sounds full of atmosphere and character, though I’m less keen on learning more about the atrocities committed by Kant. But you’ve hooked me – it’s on the list 😄

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    • It’s honestly not overly graphic about the atrocities Kant commits and Theorin is great at making his baddies kinda sympathetic – they’re usually damaged rather than purely evil, if that makes sense. Perfect reading for this time of year… 😀

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  8. Ah what is it with contemporary crime and their length?! I am always amazed when I see a crime book over 400 pages long although there are some exceptions. Still, it sounds like the setting was described just as one might expect from a Scandinavian noir. Great review!

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    • Thank you! I don’t know why there’s been such a fashion for crime books to be so long in recent years – it really doesn’t suit the format. It’s ages since I last read any Scandi crime – this one reminded me how good they can be!

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