Larsson, Asa - 'The Blood Spilt' (translated by Marlaine Delargy)
Bravely, Asa Larsson begins her second book in exactly the same way as her first: with a religious leader found dead in a church. You'd think it might be asking for trouble, concocting a plot so similar to her debut novel, when most writers would try to do something markedly different for their second novel so as not to repeat themselves. However, somehow Larsson pulls it off, as there's no sense of repetition.
One morning a female priest is found hanging by a chain in the local church. Mildred Nilsson has made friends and enemies in equal measure since her posting. A staunch feminist, she has put together a popular local women's group, but has also managed to alienate most of the village's men. She's also endeavoured to set up a wildlife fund to help a local lone she-wolf that has somehow found its home in the local wood, and this has upset many of the local priests. So, there isn't a particular shortage of suspects.
However, no progress is made on the investigation for three months, and it is gradually stepped down. Inspector Anna-Maria Mella returns to work from maternity leave, and is given the case alone to ease her back into the job. A combination of that, and the return to the area of Rebecka Martinsson (who comes for work and stays to get away), kicks the case into touch again. It's when Rebecka finds that Mildred Nilsson had a locker in the parish office, that no one has told the police about, that she starts to get dragged into the case.
I have had a mixed reaction to both Larsson's books so far. On the one hand, she has some excellent qualities as a writer: she has a real understanding of human relationships and motivations, and a good handle on the dynamics of relationship conflict in particular. She writes excellently, also, about Northern Sweden, and the world of tax finance which provides the rationale for Rebecka's initial involvement. Indeed, the financial aspects (and I don't at all mean to convey the impression that they are large aspects, but they're still present) are authentic and also human rather than dry. She also has an immense sensitivity to character. Indeed, both novels so far have been character rather than plot driven, and this is where my misgivings lie. Excellent at she is at character, the focus is perhaps too great, off-balance. I have got the feeling, in both books, that we don't get the real meat of the story. (Also what doesn't help is a protagonist who isn't really involved that heavily in the crime or its investigation.)
There's a high intimacy in the writing with all the characters, which means that, as well as a lack of focus on plot (and its development), we actually feel distanced, rather than close, because we experience every character at an equal level of depth. There's no particular attachment to the protagonist, or any other character. I found it quite strange, I must admit, to feel at a distance through being placed so close. Larsson also seems to invest her police investigators with a remarkable lack of knowledge about police procedure: on at least one occasion they seem not to even consider that they might need a warrant, and on another they also almost forget to have a guardian present when interviewing a minor. It's a small point, indeed, but it still struck me as strange.
The result of not really feeling close to the plot is that you never really get the sense you're actually reading a mystery, and it's a strange feeling indeed. It also means there’s a distinct lack of suspense, which is the most important criticism, and for all the blood, I found the book strangely anaemic. There's no real excitement, until a final burst of blood in the tense climax. However, I still quite enjoy her books, for reasons I don't really know. She certainly writes well, especially dialogue, and the book at no stage felt like a trial to read. I wouldn't place Larsson at the top of the tree of Scandinavian crime-writers, but she's certainly a worthwhile read, if not one to get passionate about.
Read another review of THE BLOOD SPILT.
Fiona Walker, England