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

Unburying the past…

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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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The Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin

the voices beyondBack in the USSR…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Jonas is spending the summer on the island of Öland at the resort owned by his family, the Klosses. One night, he takes his dingy out onto the sea. Drifting in the darkness, a sudden shaft of moonlight shows a boat approaching and he doesn’t have time to get out of the way. He manages to climb aboard the boat before his dingy is sunk, but what awaits him there is the stuff of nightmares – dying men (or are they already dead?) on the deck stalking towards him and calling out in a language he doesn’t understand. Terrified, Jonas jumps overboard and manages eventually to swim to shore. He makes for the first lighted dwelling he sees – the boathouse of old Gerlof, who’s back staying in Öland for the summer months. Something odd happened to Gerlof too when he was young, so despite the strangeness of Jonas’ story, Gerlof believes him – and so is sucked into a mystery that will get darker as the summer wears on…

This will undoubtedly appear in my best of the year list this year. The first two chapters – the one on the boat, and the one about the spooky experience in Gerlof’s youth – are brilliantly atmospheric, hooking the reader right from the beginning. And the rest of the book pretty much maintains that high standard all the way through. The next few chapters introduce the various characters, giving a bit of back-story for each and then bringing them all to the island in time for the Midsummer celebrations in 1999. At this point it can be a bit confusing as to how they will all fit into the story but Theorin gives just the right amount of information at each stage to keep the story flowing.

The characterisation is particularly strong. There are several main characters, and the chapters rotate amongst them, all in the third person – Gerlof, a life-long resident of the island, elderly now but still with a curiosity about life that means he gets himself involved in other people’s problems; Jonas, visiting the island for the summer and feeling a bit isolated as his brother and cousins consider him to be too young to take along with them; Lisa – a musician and DJ who’s working at the resort for the summer; and Aron, who left Öland for the ‘new country’ as a child and has now come home, though we don’t learn why till later. Gerlof is both well drawn and likeable – as a man of 86, Theorin never makes the mistake of having him be some kind of physical hero. Rather he is someone who is good at listening and believing, and at persuading people to talk to him. Aron is enigmatic – it’s clear from his first appearance that he’s plotting something bad and has a grudge against the Kloss family, but as his story is gradually revealed, it’s hard not to find some empathy or, at least, pity for him – some understanding of why he has become who he is.

Johan Theorin
Johan Theorin

The bulk of the book is set in the present day, but there’s another strand that takes the reader back to time of the Great Terror in the Stalinist USSR, and it is this strand that lifts the book so far above average. As it happens, I have recently read a history of the Stalinist period, so for once am in a position to say that the picture Theorin paints of this time is totally authentic and clearly based on very thorough research. I’m not going to say any more about this part of the plot, because the way that Theorin gradually reveals the story is the real strength of the book. But this time of horrors is brilliantly depicted – no punches are pulled, and there are some scenes that are grim and dark indeed. Theorin doesn’t wallow, though, and at all times he puts a great deal of humanity into the story which, while it doesn’t mitigate the horrors, softens the edges a little, making it very moving at times.

Back in the present, all the various strands are gradually pulled together in the lead up to an explosive thriller finish – well foreshadowed, but still surprising and shocking when it comes. And just to finish off one of the most perfectly structured crime/thrillers I’ve read in a while, the epilogue is as compelling as the first couple of chapters were. Though this works perfectly well as a standalone, it’s the fourth in Theorin’s Öland Quartet, with Gerlof as the recurring character who links them. I shall promptly be adding the other three to the TBR. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.

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The Asylum by Johan Theorin

“That way madness lies…”

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Publication date: 14th March 2013

AsylumA slow-burn psychological thriller, the book starts with loner Jan Hauger applying to work in the pre-school that is attached to St Patricia’s psychiatric hospital, known to locals as St Psycho’s. From the beginning we know that Jan has reasons of his own for wanting to be close to the asylum – reasons that the author slowly reveals as he lets us see inside Jan’s head. St Patricia’s holds some of the most dangerous criminals in Sweden but security isn’t as tight as those in charge think. As Jan gets to know his colleagues he finds that, like himself, many of them have a fascination with what goes on inside…

The book is told in the third person but very much from Jan’s perspective. Cutting between present and past, we gradually discover what events in Jan’s troubled past have led him here. The other characters can accept him at face value as a pleasant young man who loves and is loved by the children in his care. But the reader knows that there are darker aspects to his personality and hidden incidents in his past. There is some moral ambiguity here – as we find out about his history, it is easy for the reader to empathise with Jan despite, rather than because of, his past actions and current intentions.

Johan Theorin
Johan Theorin
Theorin writes well and the translation by Marlaine Delargy is seamless; it’s easy to forget that this is a translation at all. The plot is well constructed and has some original aspects to it. However, the story is told very slowly and somehow that stopped the tension building as much as might have been expected given the subject matter. Jan is a believable character, a troubled soul who finds it difficult to make connections with the people around him. But the premise that so many of the characters connected with the hospital had ulterior motives for being there meant that in the end I found some elements of the story unconvincing – it seemed to rely too heavily on unlikely coincidences and circumstances.

Overall, though, I enjoyed the psychological aspects of the book and found Jan’s character interesting enough to make me want to know the outcome. And the end, when it finally came, was worth waiting for – morally ambiguous like much of the book and no less satisfying for that. Despite my criticisms, I found this a good read on the whole and will certainly look out for more of this author’s work. Recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.

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