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Cheryl’s Top 10 Scandinavian Bloodlettings

September 19, 2011 by Reader's Connection

northern-lightsWhile everyone here in Indianapolis was sweltering in 90-degree days, I took a tour of Scandinavia. I’d been putting off reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, waiting for a good block of time to set aside for it, but decided that I’d work my way through a few Scandinavian authors, saving Stieg Larsson and his tattooed girl to be the pièce de résistance. Quite honestly, it was not Larsson, but Jo Nesbø who inspired me to take the trip, but I was quite prepared to throw over Nesbø, should Larsson turn out to be a superior author. What I found was a variety of styles and capabilities, and, sadly, confirmation that crime is something that all countries have to deal with. I enjoyed the tour and the references to snow—especially endearing on those sweltering days of July. Just for fun, I’ve given my own rankings of the authors, and probably even more interesting will be hearing from patrons who may or may not agree with my assessment. — Cheryl Holtsclaw, West Indianapolis Branch


10. The Princess of Burundi by Kjell Eriksson (Sweden)

The Princess of BurundiThe cover says that this book was the “Winner of the Swedish Crime Academy Award for best Crime Novel”, but it’s hard to know what to think of a book that waits 80 pages to introduce its main character. To me, this book couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to be: mystery, romance, character study, or maybe something else I missed entirely. For sure, I found out more than I’ll likely ever need to know about shoveling snow off rooftops in Sweden. And, in all honesty, it wasn’t the worst mystery I’ve ever read. The plot: John Jonsson, a marginal criminal, has been gruesomely killed and the Uppsala police are having trouble finding his killer. The policemen charged with solving the crime spend much of their time discussing their society, its contribution to the making of such criminals, and their role as policemen: they’re trying to figure out who they are and what they should be doing. The book seems to suffer from the same dilemma.


9. Hypothermia: An Icelandic Thriller by Arnaldur Indridason (Iceland)

Hypothermia: An Icelandic ThrillerWhen Inspector Erlendur was a small boy, his father took him and his brother into the mountains to round up some sheep which had escaped. An unexpected snowstorm overtook them, they became separated, and Erlendur’s brother was never found. The memory of that loss has affected Erlendur every day of his life and surely impacts his work as a detective in Reykjavik . When a young woman tells him that she doesn’t believe her friend’s death was a suicide, Erlendur finds himself strangely drawn into investigating. In a jarring juxtaposition, he also finds himself investigating the long-ago disappearance of a young man and young woman. Throughout the story, the question is raised time and again: Is there life after death? To what extent would someone go to discover the answer? At first, the exploration of that idea was intriguing; after a while, it just became depressing. This story may well be “psychologically astute”, as one reviewer said, but to call it a thriller would be a reach.


8. Mind’s Eye: An Inspector Van Veeteren Mystery by Håkan Nesser (Sweden)

Mind's Eye: An Inspector Van Veeteren MysteryAs I read this, I kept thinking that the subtitle could easily have been “Agatha Christie does Sweden”, since the writing style is reminiscent of that used by mystery writers 50-100 years ago. Van Veeteren is a middle-aged detective with a basset hound face, winter depression, and a wife who has left him, but keeps returning. He’s grumpy in general, does not suffer fools lightly, and knows that he has a special gift which enables him to ferret out criminals. In this case, Janek Mitter woke up one morning with the world’s worst hangover. And a wife drowned in the bathtub. Mitter cannot remember anything from the previous night, and so his trial moves inexorably toward his being found guilty. Van Veeteren senses that Mitter did not kill his wife, but since Mitter offers little assistance in his own defense, Van Veeteren has little choice but to let the courts decide Mitter’s fate. But when Mitter is killed, Van Veeteren vows that this time, the right murderer will be brought to justice. This is a great read for those who love piecing together clues.


7. The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg (Sweden)

TITLEErica Falck returned to her hometown of Fjallbacka to take care of matters after her parents’ funeral, but soon finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation. The murdered woman was a childhood friend of Erica’s, and slowly, as Erica allows her writer’s curiosity to take over and begins investigating, it becomes obvious that there’s some kind of dark secret which has been kept in the little town for many years. Also investigating the murder is another childhood friend of Erica’s, Patrik Hedstrom, who is now a police officer in Fjallbacka. The chemistry between the two serves to fuel the investigation into the murder and slowly the long-held secrets are peeled back, layer by layer. A good mystery inserts many threads into the tapestry it’s weaving, and the reader rightly believes that by the story’s end the threads will be neatly tied off. The denouement of this story felt rushed to me, with Läckberg tying the loose ends quickly and none too neatly, with one loose end still out there, the issue unresolved. This was a good book, but not a great one.


6. The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler (Sweden)

The HypnotistTen years ago, Erik Maria Bark was a well-respected doctor; he was on the cutting edge of research into mining the memories of the mind through hypnosis. And then a terrible tragedy sent him plummeting into depression, his family into turmoil. He has promised that he will never practice hypnosis again. And yet, when Joona Linna calls him, begs him to hypnotize a teenage boy who is the only survivor of a family which has been hacked to death, how can Bark refuse? There is an older sister who was away from the home at the time and only the boy may be able to give them the insight to find the killer before he finds the sister. The book loses some momentum in the middle with a prolonged flashback, but picks back up again once Linna and Bark get closer to discovering the killer’s identity. Suspense grows and tension builds; like the hypnotist, the authors are experts at using language to manipulate people’s minds.


5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (Sweden)

The Girl with the Dragon TattooI just know that this is going to win me a lot of enemies, but I don’t get what all the hoopla was about. I tend to judge a book by whether I like the sound of an author’s voice in my head, and Larsson definitely succeeded on that front. But the man just wouldn’t shut up. He had a cast of thousands (well, not quite, but who could keep them all straight?), none of whom were particularly likeable. He nattered on incessantly about totally insignificant details-I only wish I were as creative as the Amazon reviewer who said (of the Larsson sequel): “So overall, if you like mystery novels but prefer constant coffee drinking as opposed to actual character development, plot, or action, then buy this book, you will NOT regret it! This book will bring out the coffee addict in you! So make a pot of coffee and begin reading this book NOW!!!!!” It wasn’t a terrible book, more like listening to a good friend who doesn’t know when to stop talking.


4. The White Lioness by Henning Mankell (Sweden)

The White LionessFor Detective Chief Inspector Kurt Wallander of the Ystad Police Department, the day gets off to a bad start when he discovers that thieves have broken into his apartment and stolen, among other things, his CD collection. His mood does not improve when he gets to work and takes a missing persons report. Louise Åkerblom, a real estate agent, had gone to list a house over two days earlier and has not returned home. Far away, in South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s release from prison is considered by many Afrikaners as a threat to Apartheid; a few will do whatever they deem necessary to assure that life as they know it will continue. But what has the potential bloodbath in South Africa to do with the disappearance of a woman in Sweden? Wallander grows more and more confused as his investigation continues, gradually gaining in scope to include not only Sweden and South Africa, but also the Russian mafia. With this story, Mankell reminds us of how the actions of a few in one country can affect the lives of so many people living thousands of miles away.


3. The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen (Denmark)

The Keeper of Lost CausesCarl Mørck, Copenhagen homicide detective extraordinaire, has been reduced to a shadow of his former self by a case that left one partner dead, one paralyzed, and Carl psychologically shattered. His boss relegates him to the basement, ostensibly as the head of a new department which specializes in cold cases, but really to have Carl out of the way. Carl demands an assistant and gets Assad, a man whose skills seem to far surpass the usual secretarial ones which Carl had envisioned. Carl realizes that he’s been pushed aside, and would be all too happy to drink coffee and nap his way through the day, but Assad keeps poking and prodding him and eventually arouses Carl’s interest in the case of a politician who has been missing for five years. Carl and Assad made an unlikely—but very likeable—team, and although their investigation progresses in fits and starts, they eventually do unravel the mystery. A terrific first effort for Adler-Olsen and we can only hope that there will be many more entries in this planned series.


2. Snow Angels: An Inspector Vaara Novel by James Thompson (Finland)

Snow Angels: An Inspector Vaara Novel It’s December 16th in Kittilä, a town in Finland so far north that it lays inside the Arctic Circle. The temperature is minus forty degrees Celsius and the time is kaamos; Finns in this area won’t see daylight again until Christmas day. A beautiful Somalian woman has been killed in a brutal manner, left out in the cold on a reindeer farm, looking like a snow angel. The clues quickly lead Kari Vaara to the man who stole Vaara’s wife 13 years before. Then they spiral back out again and Vaara finds himself dealing with other deaths as the cold and darkness take their toll on the population: “Most years, Finland has the world’s highest suicide rate.” Murders, too, occur all too frequently during kaamos. Perhaps because he’s not a native Finn (he was born in Kentucky, but now lives in Finland), Thompson goes into much detail about setting and customs. People–or at least I–frequently skip over that kind of detail, but Thompson weaves it in so skillfully that it added to, rather than detracted from, the story.


1. The Snowman by Jo Nesbø (Norway)

TITLEHarry Hole, Nesbø’s unfortunately named police investigator, is the only man in Norway to have the dubious distinction of having caught a serial killer. Now he has his work cut out for him when it becomes increasingly apparent that women are going missing on the day of the first snowfall. These women are wives and mothers. There is nothing to connect them except in the killer’s mind. At each disappearance site, a snowman has mysteriously appeared, and, following the abduction, wears something belonging to the woman. With little in the way of forensic evidence, Harry and his new partner, Katrine Bratt, must try to figure out what connects these women in the killer’s mind. Even more unsettling, the investigator begins to question his own partner’s connection to the case and if she might indeed be the killer. Nesbø’s previous book, The Redbreast, was voted “the best Norwegian crime novel ever written” by members of Norwegian book clubs. The Snowman may be even better.



  1. Kevin Farrell says:

    CH – Thank you so much for the excellent reviews of these books by Scandinavian authors. What a collection! Unlike you, I could not get enough of Stieg Larsson. The Snowman is on my ‘To Read’ list and is on request from the library. I am looking forward to it. Now I am wondering – if I read all of these books would I put them in the same order as you have?

  2. Geoffrey says:

    What a great list! I’ll have to look into reading some of these! Thanks Cheryl!

  3. Kathy says:

    I have read some of these books and I agree that Scandinavians can sure write about crime. One of my favorites is Karin Fossum from Norway. Her books hold you tightly in their grip.

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