Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime fiction novels are as much character studies as they are anything else. In novels like that, there is certainly a crime and its investigation and those are at the heart of the plot. However, it’s really the characters who move the plot along and keep us reading. Such a novel is Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm), so let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today.
The story begins with the murder of Viktor Stråndgard in a Kiruna church called The Church of the Source of All Our Strength. Known as The Paradise Boy, he was an up-and-coming church leader with what was developing into a large cult-like following. His death makes the headlines, even as far away as Stockholm. That’s where tax attorney Rebecka Martinsson lives and works, and when she sees the news of Stråndgard’s murder on the TV news, she is stunned. Being from Kiruna herself, she knew Stråndgard. Then just after she hears the news, she gets a call from the victim’s sister Sanna, who is a former friend. It turns out that Sanna discovered the body, and she wants Martinsson to come to Kiruna to help her through this difficult situation. Martinsson has her own reasons for not wanting to go back to Kiruna, but she reluctantly agrees.
When Martinsson arrives in Kiruna, she meets police inspectors Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke, who are investigating the murder. Naturally they’re interested in anything that Sanna Stråndgard might have to tell them and at first, all goes as well as can be expected. But then, the evidence begins to suggest that Sanna might be guilty of the murder. In fact, she’s arrested for the crime. She claims that she’s not guilty and begs Martinsson to defend her. She and Martinsson have a complicated friendship, but Martinsson doesn’t want to see an innocent person ‘railroaded’ through the system. What’s more, there are Sanna’s two children to consider. So Martinsson agrees and begins to do her own investigation.
The police aren’t deliberately ‘railroading’ Sanna Stråndgard; they have found credible evidence against her. But as Martinsson looks into the case, she finds that more than one person could have had a motive for murder. The church community for instance is both close-knit and somewhat close-mouthed. Certainly there are motives and suspects among them. And then there’s Stråndgard’s personal life and relationships. It’s also not too farfetched to suppose that one of Stråndgard’s devotees crossed the proverbial line between devotion and obsession.
Each from a different angle, Martinsson and the police detectives look through the evidence and put the pieces of the puzzle together. In the end, they find out the truth about Stråndgard’s murder, and Martinsson faces some of the ghosts from her own past.
Characters and character development are essential to this story, so as the events unfold, we also see different layers of the characters. For instance, Martinsson is a ‘driven’ young attorney trying to make her way in a Stockholm firm. We learn about her work there, her relationships with her co-workers and her boss Måns Wenngren, and a bit of what it’s like for her at a large law firm. But as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that she’s much more than that. As she reacquaints herself with her home town, we discover some things about her past. On the surface, Martinsson seems distant, almost cold, and she doesn’t have a lot of warm friendships. But as we learn about her bit by bit, we see that there’s more to her than just the surface.
There’s a similar process as we learn about Anna-Maria Mella. On the surface of it, she’s a hardworking cop. But she is also a loving wife and mother who’s expecting her next baby at any time. She’s smart, quick-thinking and brave. But she also has her vulnerable moments. The same is true of her partner Sven-Erik Stålnacke. As the story goes on, we see bits and pieces of his character coming together to form a whole.
Larsson uses flashbacks and changes in point of view to ‘flesh out’ the characters and add to their depth. Readers who prefer a linear story with only one point of view will be disappointed. So will readers who prefer only one tense (Larsson uses both past and present tense). But that said, it’s always clear (well, it is to me) whose point of view is being shared and when the event being discussed takes place. Readers who like innovative approaches to storytelling will be pleased.
This is also in many ways a police procedural, so readers follow along as the police conduct interviews, look for evidence, and try to put the pieces of the puzzle together. We get a sense of the unusual hours they keep and the hard, sometimes exhausting work that’s needed to solve a crime. And we get a sense of the camaraderie that police partners develop in the relationship between Mella and Stålnacke.
Another important element in this novel is the setting. Kiruna is a small town in the far north of Sweden – Norrland. It’s an out-of-the-way place with its own beauty. Here is Martinsson’s thinking about it when she first hears the news of Stråndgard’s death:
‘Winter in Stockholm, she thought. It’s hardly surprising that you shut down your brain when you’re outside. It’s different up at home, the blue shining midwinter twilight, the snow crunching under your feet. Or the early spring, when you’ve skied along the river from Grandmother’s house in Kurravaara to the cabin in Jiekajärvi, and you sit down and rest on the first patch of clear ground where the snow has melted under a pine tree. The tree bark glows like red copper in the sun. The snow sighs with exhaustion, collapsing in the warmth.’
There is also a sense of how small a community Kiruna is. Everyone knows everyone, and that plays its role in the plot.
The mystery itself is credible and the solution is, too. It’s a very sad, sad story, but as we learn what really happened, it does make sense. There are some ‘action’ places in the story, in particular towards the end. But the pace of this novel isn’t really ‘thriller-like’ at all.
The Savage Altar is a believable, character-driven police procedural that takes place in a unique setting. The story is told in an innovative way and the characters unfold as the story goes on. But what’s your view? Have you read The Savage Altar? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 9 September/Tuesday 10 September – Death in the Kingdom – Andrew Grant
Monday 16 September/Tuesday 17 September – Dead Men Don’t Ski – Patricia Moyes
Monday 23 September/Tuesday 24 September – Needle in a Haystack – Ernesto Mallo