When I realised I’d have to return to my hectic job after a relaxing three-week holiday and endure a whole week of 40°C+ temperatures I knew my choice of reading would likely be the key to my mental survival. I’d been saving Åsa Larsson’s fifth novel for just such an emergency and, bless her, she didn’t let me down.
The book opens with what is, for this city dweller anyway, a somewhat confronting depiction of a bear hunt in the wilds of northern Sweden at the end of which it is discovered this particular bear has eaten a human being. In a seemingly disconnected episode in a nearby town a woman has been violently murdered and her young grandson is missing from the house. Prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson is initially assigned to the murder investigation but one of Martinsson’s colleagues, jealous of her experience on big cases, contrives to have her removed. While he takes over the official investigation Rebecka is on holidays but can’t quite let go of her notion that something connects the two events and so she continues to look into matters.
One of the things I enjoy most about Åsa Larsson’s writing is that she takes risks. They’re not always entirely successful but they do allow her to take her storytelling and character development in unpredictable directions and collectively result in a refreshing lack of that formulaic feeling that often accompanies a crime series. It struck me, for example, as I read the fifth novel in which she stars, that Rebecka Martinsson is almost the exact opposite of the traditional crime fiction protagonist who starts out relatively normal but acquires the trappings of the stress-filled job (alcoholism, broken relationships, mental illness etc) over time. Martinsson had her mental breakdown at the end of the first book in which she appeared and has worked her way back from there to the point that in THE SECOND DEADLY SIN she is content, confident and self reliant. She can catch her own food, distill her own alcohol and follow her instincts intelligently. Frankly that would be enough to make her interestingly different from most of her fictional counterparts but Larsson doesn’t leave it there. At the end of the book Rebecka is placed in a horrible situation where she chooses to do something most people would find almost impossible. I love that Larsson doesn’t give her a ‘just in the nick of time’ escape from the brutal reality of her circumstances (as 95% of novels would do) and shows that even though she did the awful thing for the right reason Rebecka struggles with the guilt of her actions.
The novel does have some similarities to its predecessors, perhaps most notably in the author’s continued thoughtful exploration of the connection between humans and the natural world, especially animals. This theme crops up in a variety of ways in THE SECOND DEADLY SIN but most particularly in the relationships that several of the key characters have with their various dogs. One element that was completely new to me in this novel though was the gentle humour that runs subtly through it. There are some laugh-out-loud jokes and a dry wit that gives the novel a more upbeat tone than the earlier books, a couple of which were almost unbearably bleak.
The storytelling here is first rate. Along with the modern-day events there’s a story from a hundred years ago, when Kiruna was the world’s newest town and a young schoolteacher headed there to make a new life for herself. But all these seemingly random threads are surprisingly easy to follow and each one is compelling in its own right. The reader is gripped by the plight of the schoolteacher as she falls in love with someone who proves unworthy. But we easily switch our interest to what will become of Marcus, the young boy who might have seen what happened to his grandmother but is so traumatised he pretends to be a wild dog. Fortunately he is watched over by Eriksson, the police dog handler who is in love with Rebecka but believes he’ll never have more than her friendship. And just when we think we don’t want to be pulled away from that thread we’re thrown into the official investigation which is being led by a pompous, foolish man whom the police, including Rebecka’s friend Detective Anna-Maria Mella, struggle to be civil to let alone follow into battle as it were.
The nuns who terrorised my childhood imprinted upon me that greed and avarice, very clearly the subjects of this novel, are the third rather than the second of the seven deadly sins so perhaps I have missed the meaning of the book’s title but even if so I loved the book itself. Ably translated by Laurie Thompson it is the best thing Åsa Larsson has written so far (and yes I realise I said that last time too) and I would recommend it to any reader. It’s funny, exciting, thoughtful and thought-provoking and if the ending doesn’t leave you with your heart in your mouth and a tear in your eye then I’m not sure I want to know you.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Laurie Thompson
Publisher Quercus 
Length 395 pages
Book Series #5
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