Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Liza Marklund has become both well-known and popular, and it’s about time this feature included one of her novels. So let’s remedy that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on The Bomber, the first of her Annika Bengtzon series to be published, but not the first chronologically.
The real action in the novel begins a week before Christmas, when a major explosion rocks Stockholm. The city was chosen as the site for the upcoming Olympics, and to many people’s shock, the explosion went off in Victoria Stadium, in the Olympic Village. Annika Bengtzon, crime editor for Kvällspressen, gets a late-night/early morning ‘phone call about the event and soon rushes to the scene. At first it’s believed that the only injuries were to a taxi driver who was in the area. But then the body of an unknown victim is discovered in the wreckage.
After a short time, the victim is identified as Christine Furhage, one of Sweden’s business and civic leaders, and head of the committee that brought the Olympic Games to Stockhom. One theory is that this is a terrorist attack by people who do not want the games to be held there. There’s even the possibility that this is the work of a man who’s actually set explosions before, and who has since disappeared. Those in power, both in the Swedish government and on the Olympics Committee, don’t want anyone to panic, so they’re not eager to have either of those theories widely discussed.
Soon enough though, another possibility arises. There is reason to believe that this might have been an ‘inside job’ – the work of someone either on the committee or closely associated with the Olympic Village. If so, this opens up a whole new avenue of exploration. As the police follow up on different leads, Annika Bengtzon and her team begin to look more closely not just at the obvious possibilities, but also at the victim’s personal life.
Then there’s another explosion. This time the victim is Stefan Bjerling, a construction worker who was employed by one of the subcontractors used to build Olympic Village. Other than the fact that he was killed in another Olympic Village building, there seems to be no immediate connection between this victim and Christine Furhage. Now Bengtzon and her team have to re-open the terrorist angle on this story as well as continue looking into each victim’s personal life.
As Bengtzon begins to get closer to the truth about these bombings, she also unwittingly gets closer to real danger for herself. In the end though, she and her team find out who is behind the bombings and what the motive is. It turns out that the motive has nothing to do with terrorists who may want to sully Sweden’s reputation.
One very important element in this novel is Bengtzon’s work life at Kvällspressen. News gathering and reporting is a very ‘high-octane,’ sometimes very stressful job. There is a great deal of pressure to get a big story first and to get as many people reading about it as possible. At the same time, there’s also pressure to be accurate. This means that when a major story breaks, there are long hours, sometimes uncomfortable working conditions and more. Everyone’s nerves get frayed, and sometimes it boils over into arguments among members of Bengtzon’s team. The atmosphere gets very tense at times, but most of the members of the team are professionals who want to do the job well.
Because the story is about a sleuth who’s a journalist, we also see how news professionals go about their jobs. They learn the truth from interviews, from looking through whatever records they can get and from sources in the police department and other places. As Bengtzon and her team work this case, we also see that journalists are often not welcome. Not at crime scenes, not at the homes of the bereaved, and not at police stations. Readers also get a chance to see the intense competition between news outlets and among journalists to be the one with the major story.
For this sort of reason, Bengtzon has to be tough. And she is. She is intelligent, outspoken and not afraid to go after the story, no matter where it leads. She’s sometimes faced with extremely difficult decisions, and she has to make and live with a lot of ‘judgement calls.’ That means that sometimes she’s not exactly popular with her team. But for her, getting the story is more important than protecting anyone’s feelings. It doesn’t make her life any easier that she’s a woman in what’s traditionally been a man’s world, and has been recently promoted (over a rival) to her present position. She faces criticism on a regular basis.
Perhaps Bengtzon’s most difficult choices have to do with balancing her work life and her home life. She loves her husband Thomas Samuelsson and their children Kalle and Ellen. But the demands of being a wife, mother and full-time crime editor take their toll. On the other hand, Bengtzon loves her profession (if not always her particular job). When a story breaks, she feels no option but to cover it. This tug-of-war causes more than a moment of conflict in the story, and Bengtzon doesn’t come out unscathed.
Another important element in this novel is its Stockholm setting. Marklund places the reader there in several ways. Certainly there’s the geographic setting. But there’s also the lifestyle and cultural context. Along with a look at the life of a busy crime reporter and a busy newspaper, readers also get a look at life in modern Stockholm.
One more interesting note is in order about the story. The Bomber was first published in Swedish in 1998. Readers will notice that some of the technology is quite different to what we’re accustomed to now. So the novel also gives readers a look at how journalists got their leads and got their stories out in the days before social networking and online news.
The Bomber is the story of a Stockholm news outlet responding to a major story that involves murder and some very highly-placed people. It features a protagonist who’s trying to balance a home life with a very demanding job, and a mystery that isn’t nearly as obvious as it may seem. But what’s your view? Have you read The Bomber? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 25 August/Tuesday 26 August – Gone Baby Gone – Dennis Lehane
Monday 1 September/Tuesday 2 September – A Hank of Hair – Charlotte Jay
Monday 8 September/Tuesday 9 September – Dead Simple – Peter James