Johan Theorin’s first book was one of my top ten reads of last year so I didn’t need much incentive to settle down with his second novel, though being able to count it towards my 2010 Scandinavian Reading Challenge obligation and knowing it’s one of the four books I have left to read on the CWA International Dagger shortlist didn’t hurt.
Even though I read it alone and there wasn’t a campfire in sight reading The Darkest Room was a similar experience to having sat at the feet of an old-fashioned storyteller and become engrossed in his latest tale. Different threads and themes are woven together in a way that would be a disaster in a lesser craftsman’s hands but in Theorin’s, who is clearly a master of his craft, the sensitively translated product is deliciously atmospheric.
The novel centres on a house which was originally built from timber washed ashore after a shipwreck in 1846. The house, at Eel Point on the remote Swedish island of Öland, has seen many inhabitants in the subsequent decades and the book reveals what happened to some of them in between recounting the story of the house’s current owners Katrine and Joakim Westin. Just as they and their children are settling into their new home after moving from Stockholm tragedy strikes the family, as it has befallen many of the house’s previous occupants, and Theorin teases us by slowly revealing that things are not as they might first have seemed. Are there ghosts at Eel Point or does the danger that lurks take a more earthly form?
In addition to the Westins we meet Tilda Davidsson, a recently graduated police officer who is the sole officer operating full-time out of a newly re-opened station in one of the island’s towns. Her job is primarily a community liaison though she does have at least one more serious investigation to worry about as the island experiences a string of burglaries. As well as being an interesting character in her own right Tilda’s familial relationships offer a way for Theorin to include Gerlof Davidsson here, who was my favourite figure in the first book, Echoes from the Dead. There just aren’t enough clever octogenarians featured in fiction these days and even though Gerlof’s role is a more minor one I appreciated his insights as Tilda records his thoughts and stories in an informal oral history.
I know that saying that a book’s setting is a character is frowned upon in some reviewing circles but I can’t think of any other way to describe the presence in this story of the house in particular and the island in general. The action takes place in the Northern winter when the island is at its coldest, harshest and least inviting. Snow, ice and storms feature heavily and I can’t be the only reader to have reached for a warming cup of tea and another blanket as I lost myself in the tale. Aside from the natural environment the book also explores a theme that Theorin is clearly engaged by, namely the social changes the island has seen as Sweden has moved from being an agricultural based society to a more urbanised one.
There are plenty of other aspects of this absorbing book I could talk about but I’m wary of giving spoilers and frankly further discussion on my part is just taking you away from your next task which is to track down a copy of the book. Now. It is part historical fiction, part ghost story, part whodunit, and part sailor’s yarn. It is wholly enjoyable and recommended to all.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 5/5
Translator Marlaine Delargy; Publisher Black Swan [this edition 2010, original edition 2009]; ISBN 9780552774611; Length 474 pages
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Among the many places The Darkest Room has been reviewed are Crime Scraps*, Crimetime, EuroCrime, DJ’s Krimiblog, It’s A Crime (or a Mystery)* and Mysteries in Paradise (The reviews with an asterisk next to them are both quite lovely but they do give away a little more of the plot than I would like to have known before embarking on this particular book)