Unseen, by Mari Jungstedt, trans. Tiina Nunnally

Smouldering depths of supercool Swedes are exposed on murder island
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The Independent Culture

Another Swedish writer arrives on the crowded Scandinavian crime-fiction scene, and this one is certainly worthy of her place on the ice floe. Mari Jungstedt's first novel is a complex study of a psychopath at loose on the pleasant island of Gotland, where boats, ponies and pot-making are among the normal forms of amusement.

All is picturesque and peaceful, until the body of a dog is discovered and, shortly thereafter, that of its female owner. She is from a group of professionals holidaying in a beach cabin, among whom are some deep undercurrents. Was there a quarrel ending in a fight? What sexual rivalries might be simmering undisclosed?

The importance of these questions intensifies when a second body is found. The pressure is on detective Anders Knutas to find the killer quickly, and especially to find an outside murderer - preferably from some wicked metropolis such as Stockholm.

In placid Gotland, it's important to keep such an extraordinary event as murder under wraps so as not to frighten away the tourists. But the local police station is leaking like a sieve because Johan Berg, a national TV newshound, has a "deep throat" among the local cops. Berg gets more than he bargains for when he goes to investigate and falls in love with a woman deeply embroiled in the mystery, though she is married with children and they have their own difficulties.

The story intercuts convincingly between the sane, rational world of the investigation and glimpses into the mind of the killer, whose horribly logical motivation is exposed as having deep roots in the past. It's well told with macabre touches (a mutilated animal, fetishism with bloodstained clothing) and makes skilful use of the traditional "closed community" island setting.

Why is Nordic crime so successful in this country now? One reason is, perhaps, what it does to the Scandinavian image. These sensible and healthy people, well-behaved to the point of tedium, whose wealth and good looks we Brits secretly envy, are suddenly revealed as raging torrents of destructive passion. It's the paradox of the ice-blond exterior, with implications of smouldering depths, that so fascinated Hitchcock.

The other reason is the consistent standard of the writing. This is a debut novel, yet the plot is handled with care and skill, the atmosphere and characters subtly drawn. Such writers are a huge relief after reading baggy, self-indulgent versions of the genre.

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