I am a sucker for good detective fiction. It ticks every box for me when I want something not too demanding but interesting, well written and with something new, topical, witty or thoughtful to say – preferably in good long series so that I can gobble them up as eagerly as I once did the Famous Five. I’m a great fan, therefore, of Elly Griffiths (Ruth Galloway series), Peter May (Roy Grace) and Val McDermid (Karen Pirie) among many others.
Black River is the third in a series. And it might be best to read the preceding titles – Dark Pines and Red Snow – first although they each work perfectly well as standalones. Will Dean, the author, is a Brit who lives in Sweden the extreme north of which – where he author lives in the heart of an elk forest – provides the setting for these novels. I’ve never been there but I find his atmospheric account of the freezing, unforgiving ever-dark winter forest totally convincing. In Black River it’s midsummer – a national holiday amidst much celebration in Sweden, apparently. The light is as relentless as the dark six months earlier and it can be sinister.
Dean’s protagonist is a journalist named Tuva Moodyson. At the opening of Black River she has recently left the local paper in the fictional northern town of Gavrik for a bigger job in Malmo. Then she hears that her friend Tammy is missing and immediately drives hundreds of kilometres north to try to find her. Tammy was born to Thai parents but she is Swedish as Tuva repeatedly reminds people who tend to racist thoughts.
Black River is studded with strange people and events in, or near, this small, insular town where everyone knows everyone else except that they don’t really. There is a woman who breeds snakes, both constrictors and venomous ones. She produces snakeskins, does taxidermy and eats the by-products. But does that make her a kidnapper or murderer? Then there are the sisters who live in the forest where their business is carving deeply disturbing trolls and the taxi driver who once tried to rape Tuva – and who is a single parent raising a very troubled little boy. The whole town bristles with suspicion, meance and, apparently, untrustworthy people, although Tuva has a wonderfully warm relationship with her former boss and with the local frontline police officer. Then there’s Noora, another police officer to whom Tuva is drawn in a different way and Dean handles this with understated delicacy.
The other thing I really like about Black River and its prequels is that Tuva is deaf and uses hearing aids. Dean presents this with such sensitivity and understanding – I’d be surprised if he doesn’t have first hand experience of it. She is never defined by her deafness she just gets on, undaunted with what she has to do but as a first person narrator she quite often comments casually to the reader that a particular conversation or situation was difficult and explains why. It’s pretty affirmative writing.
Tuva is also gloriously, determinedly passionate, Not everything she does is sensible. But Tammy simply must be found, dead or alive – along with another young woman who has disappeared at about the same time. Sometimes Tuva struggles to make people understand that Tammy matters as much as the other girl. Then there’s news from a search in the forest … no spoilers.
You really can’t travel at present but if you fancy an armchair trip to Sweden, Will Dean is the person to take you.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin