Eriksson, Kjell - 'The Cruel Stars of the Night' (translated by Ebba Segerberg)
Laura Hinderstern calls into her local police station to report her father, an elderly retired professor of Italian literature, missing. Soon after this, Ann Lindell and her colleagues in the Uppsala police are called out to discover the murder of a solitary old man, Petrus Blomgren. Blomgren was a decent chap, independent and a good neighbour to Dorotea. As the police investigate his life, they can find no reason why anyone should have killed him. In the absence of any motivation, they can't make much progress on the crime, but it is not long before another solitary pensioner, Jan-Elis Andersson, is killed in a similar manner. Frustratingly for the police, they can't find any evidence that the two men knew each other or ever met. Ann is dogged about the investigation, following every lead she can dream up, as she identifies with both of the men and feels the sadness of their passing.
Interspersed with this story and that of the inner lives of the detective team is an account of Laura, left alone in her childhood home among all her memories. She's taking sick leave from work since her father disappeared, but does visit the office now and again to help her boss Stig with a contract bid - she's very keen on Stig and despises Jessica, another member of the team whom Laura thinks incompetent and unpleasant. We see events through Laura's eyes, so we only gradually become to realise that she is quite disturbed, as she sorts through her house and finds many memories of her lost childhood and her long-dead mother. The professor seems to have been a martinet who took out his frustrations over his lack of academic success on his wife and only daughter, making them repress their emotions and subjecting Laura, in particular, to a spinsterish life of learning Italian and to becoming his acolyte. But how reliable are Laura's perceptions, and was her mother really all that devoted to her strange young daughter?
The tension in this novel builds up because the reader knows that Laura and the police investigation must in some way be related, but how and why? Ann and her colleagues, detectives who share a realistic set of human failings and emotional problems, stumble around trying to make sense of these confusing events and making mistakes — taking a long time for the professor's absence to feature on their radar, and missing obvious clues such as the map that shows them the intersecting relationship of the victims' houses. Ann's final mistake that leads to a cliched climax is a bit irritating to a regular reader of the genre, but the build-up and denouement of Stig's and Jessica's relationships with Laura are very well done.
This book is very bleak; the death of Blomgren and its aftermath, in particular, is extremely sad. The portrait of Laura, her state of mind and actions, is superbly compelling - a tale told with plenty of very black humour. Despite its almost completely depressing subject-matter, the book is appealing and involving - there is something about the imperfection of Ann and her colleagues that seems authentic and attractive. This author's trademark seems to be to tell the stories of his characters' lives (new ones in each book) alongside those of his detectives (regular series characters) - in such a way that the detectives, even if they solve all or part of a case, never know the full context that we, the readers, have been allowed to witness - an interesting perspective.
Read another review of THE CRUEL STARS OF THE NIGHT.
Maxine Clarke, England