• Books
  • Sunday, 14 Jul 2013

Author : Liza Marklund

Genre : Non-fiction

Publisher : Corgi

SWEDISH author Liza Marklund’s sleuth-protagonist recalls American Sue Grafton’s redoubtable Kinsey Millhone of the long-running “alphabet mysteries” – both are tough female investigators and both come with complex back-stories woven from family and personal issues.

With Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon, we get a compelling personality on the trail of Scandinavian bad guys. She has a disquieting range of flaws and foibles, notably obnoxiousness and recklessness. But this being pulp-thriller territory, Marklund’s investigative journalist is, above all, sharp and courageous.

The gripping Lifetime is seventh in the Annika Bengtzon series, though all the books can be read as standalones. Annika – a hapless intern in book one, and head of her newspaper’s crime section by this instalment – is a fighter who is balancing parenthood and marriage with her literally bloody work.

Here we move on from the broad sweep of Last Will, the previous book, which had as its white-knuckle backdrop the Nobel Prize ceremony, one of the most suspenseful in the whole series. This time, we are presented with what appears to be a “domestic” situation gone horribly wrong, and we gradually learn that the extent of the human tragedy sprawls far and wide.

The sky falls in for Annika when her husband leaves her for another woman and threatens to take their children. Meanwhile, two cops on patrol are called to a shooting in Södermalm, in central Stockholm. One of Sweden’s most senior and respected police officers, David Lindholm, has been found dead, shot once in the head and once in the groin. His now-widow Julia – an acquaintance of Annika’s – is in a distraught, blood-spattered state, shrilly blaming the “other woman” for both the killing and for the apparent abduction of her young son. But first impressions clearly mark Julia as the trigger-puller. Her yarn about her missing son sounds a bit fishy to the cops as well.

Södermalm was, of course, ground-zero of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, and has been the setting of many fictitious homicide scenes since. Understandable, since it’s a hell of a cinematic locale, with its Baroque and Gothic architecture, mix of Bohemian and well-to-do denizens, dive bars, posh restaurants, tattoo parlours, and Scandinavia’s highest concentration of Asian eateries.

This Stockholm-born reviewer is well-acquainted with its aromatic streets but I’ve never seen so much as a jaywalker or a double-parked Volvo in this part of the city. Nevertheless, a slew of writers have seen a dark side to the neighbourhood, and Marklund is adept at capturing Södermalm at its apparent edgiest.

Only Annika doubts Julia’s guilt, and undertakes her probe solo, as the police and everyone else have already leapt to judgement. Amidst this, Annika also has to pull her chaotic personal life together.

She discovers that the deceased policeman concealed another life and was likely involved in illegal business activities that led to his murder. Her race against time to uncover the truth and exonerate Julia is almost thwarted, time after time, by multiple obstacles, including the dead hand of state bureaucracy and office politics at her newspaper. The latter is exacerbated by Annika’s editor-in-chief’s plan to retrench 60 employees in a cost-cutting exercise.

The damaged domestic life of the victim mirrors Annika’s own problems. But even when she finds herself homeless, her dogged determination to find the real killer remains intact. And yet her desperation is all too palpable, as revealed when she agrees to baby-sit her own children at her husband’s mistress’ house.

There’s a lot in Lifetime apart from the killings. With Annika’s newspaper facing staff cuts, there are authentic insights into the workings of a Stockholm newsroom, because like so many of her Scando-crime-fiction peers, Marklund was a journalist herself. And she knows her craft as a fiction writer too; there are enough loose ends dangling at the conclusion for the reader to crave a sequel (which is indeed in the works).

The first Scandiavian noir writer – and still the best in this reviewer’s opinion – to have a global impact was Henning Mankell, who lit the fuse with his Scanian (a region in Sweden) chiller Faceless Killers in 1990. A few years ago he did Marklund a big favour by dubbing her “The Queen of Scandinavian Crime Fiction”. Her work does not have his subtlety, or Larsson’s breath-taking pacing and audacious plotting; nevertheless, Marklund has become an important name in the genre.

Readers can keep looking north for their Scandinavian chills and thrills. Marklund is secluded in her Stockholm flat, penning the next Annika Bengtzon mystery, The Long Shadow, as you read this.

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