The Black Path by Åsa Larsson


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There is a piece of sleight-of-hand at the beginning of this novel by Swedish crime queen Asa Larsson.

It is a tactic which both wrong-foots the reader and imparts some vivid local colour. A man is sitting fishing on a spring evening in Torneträsk. At this time of year, residents make the trip to a secluded area where the ice is more than a metre thick, riding snowmobiles, and towing their "arks" behind them. These arks are small fishing cabins with a hole in the floor through which the fishermen drill into the ice, and sit inside warmed by a gas stove.

But the fisherman in The Black Path, translated by Marlaine Delargy, is unlucky. Stepping outside in his underwear to relieve himself, he watches in horror as his ark is whipped away by a storm. He knows he will die unless he finds another. Finding a deserted one, he breaks in; he sees a blanket on the bed and pulls it off. Underneath lies the body of a woman, her eyes frozen into ice.

At this point the reader realises that this stunningly described chapter is, in fact, a clever revision of one of the oldest clichés in the crime thriller lexicon: the discovery of the corpse that sets the plot in motion. But those who have read Larsson's The Savage Altar will know that every element of her work is always granted an idiosyncratic new twist. While many Nordic crime writers are content to locate their bloody deeds in suburban cities not unlike those of Britain, Larsson is always looking for the more off-kilter setting.

We meet again her two protagonists: attorney Rebecka Martinsson, desperate to return to work after a grisly case that has shredded her sanity, and lone wolf policewoman Anna-Maria Mella, handed the gruesome case. The woman's body has evidence of torture, and there is a puzzling detail: underneath her workout clothes, she is wearing seductive lingerie. The victim is a key employee in a mining company with a global reach – a murky scenario. Larsson aficionados will know that her duo of distaff investigators are among the most quirkily characterised in the field (no easy task in a genre awash with damaged female protagonists). But the author's grasp of all her characters' psychology possesses a keen veracity.

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