The Second Deadly Sin by Asa Larsson, book review: Sinister secrets make the blood run cold

Translated by Laurie Thompson

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The Independent Culture

If you're a Swedish crime writer, is it an advantage or a disadvantage to share the name of its most commercially successful practitioner – particularly if the latter is no longer with us and there may be a gap in the market?

The question must have occurred to Asa Larsson, who – coincidentally? – even shares the same publisher as her late namesake, Stieg (no relation); the jacket of her new book, The Second Deadly Sin, is emblazoned with a quote from this newspaper comparing her with Lisbeth Salander's onlie begetter. In fact, though, the comparison is a touch academic. Firstly, the distaff Larsson is a very different kind of writer, with a more literary approach to the genre and (dare one say it?) she is the better writer.

This fifth novel once again features Larsson's duo of female protagonists, Inspector Anna-Maria Mella and ace prosecutor Rebecca Martinsson. We are taken to the Arctic north of Sweden where mysteries are hidden under the ice – and, as in such earlier books as The Savage Altar, we are not to be put in touch with the divine: religion harbours sinister and minatory secrets.

As with her The Black Path, Larsson has us by the throat from her first paragraph. In the tundra, a bear has been on the rampage, and the contents of its stomach disclose a gruesome revelation. And in Kurravaara, a woman has been savagely murdered, while her young grandson has also disappeared.

Rebecca Martinsson's participation in the investigation is sidelined by the machinations of a rival, but she is not so easily put off; as before, though, her pursuit of an implacable murderer will put her in danger and expose a crime that stretches back over the ages. The plotting here is hardly innovative, but all of this is worked out with customary panache in Larsson's storytelling, and the set pieces are electric.

If there is nothing here to quite match the astonishing opening of The Black Path (in which the frozen corpse of a woman is discovered in a fisherman's ice hut), there is nevertheless that acute sense of landscape that the author evokes with great specificity (she is less interested in urban settings than most of her confrères).

Ironic, perceptive touches quicken the narrative throughout, and the characterisation of the bloody-minded Rebecka (who Larsson really puts through the mill here) keeps The Second Deadly Sin firmly grounded; this is no superwoman, but a persistent individual who gets the job done. Larsson Mark II remains one of the brightest stars in the current Nordic firmament.

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