In The Spotlight: Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House

In The Spotlight A-LHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’s a saying that ‘old sins cast long shadows,’ and there’s some truth to that, which is part of why it serves as a plot point for lots of crime fiction. The connection between past evens and current ones is often the link between a murder (or murders) and the person responsible. Let’s take a closer look at that link today and turn the spotlight on Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House.

Early one evening, real estate agent Hans Vannerberg tells his wife Pia that he’s going out to look at a house for a client and expects to be back soon. When he doesn’t return, Pia contacts the police, who begin to search for him the next morning. Their search ends when Ingrid Olsson, who’s been in the hospital for a few weeks for hip surgery, returns to her home and finds Vannerberg’s body in her kitchen.

DCI Conny Sjöberg and his team begin to investigate, and of course, they start with Ingrid Olsson. She claims not to know Vannerberg and in any case, she herself wasn’t in any condition to commit murder at the time he was killed. There are also Vannerberg’s family and friends, but the victim and his wife had a loving marriage. And he and his business partner Jorma Molin had a solid relationship and a successful business, with no sign of financial wrongdoing. What’s more, Vannerberg seems to have led a blameless adult life – no illegal activities or dangerous associations.

Then, there’s another murder. This time the victim is Ann-Kristin Widell, a prostitute who’s been brutally murdered in her seedy apartment. And then Lise-Lott Nilsson, a working-class homemaker, is found drowned in her foot bath. Nothing seems to tie these cases together until the police discover that all of the victims were forty-four years old. Sjöberg begins to suspect that the team is dealing with either a serial killer or possibly someone who has a personal vendetta against all of the victims. Once Sjöberg and his team find the vital link among the victims, they’re able to trace the murders back to past events. That, in the end, leads them to the killer.

In the meantime, one of Sjöberg’s team members, Petra Westman, is on an investigation of her own. One evening she’s out for a friendly drink with a colleague Jamal Hamad when she meets Peder Fryhk. After Hamad leaves, she and Fryhk have several drinks together and the next thing Petra remembers is waking up very groggy the next morning in a house not her own. When she takes stock of herself, she’s fairly certain she’s been ‘date raped.’ She knows she’ll need evidence though, so she collects what she can and uses some of her police contacts to help her link Fryhk to what happened to her if that’s possible, and to find out about whatever drug might have been slipped into one of her drinks.

This is a police procedural, so readers follow along as Sjöberg and his team interview witnesses, follow up on forensics and other evidence and use the information they get to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Petra Westman also uses police strategies to follow up on her case. There are team meetings, press briefings and so on as well. That said though, there are none of the ‘patch wars’ you sometimes see in police procedurals. And although there is a chain of command, there also isn’t much in the way of police politics. What’s more, readers who are tired of ‘maverick cops’ will be pleased to know that there aren’t any in this novel. Certainly the team members think for themselves, but no-one ‘plays hero.’

It’s also worth noting that Conny Sjöberg is not a stereotypical drunken or severely overstressed cop who can’t maintain a solid personal life. He is happily married to his wife Åsa and the loving father of five children. They have their difficult moments, as most couples do, but there isn’t the all-too-common scenario of a police officer who always puts his job ahead of his family.

Another important element in this novel is the impact of past events on people. In the first chapter, we learn of some life-changing incidents that play a powerful role in the novel. And as the novel goes on, we get a sense of how those incidents may have affected the people involved in them. I can say without spoiling the story that it’s also interesting to see what those people become later in life.

The novel also raises some interesting and important questions. Just how responsible are children for what they do? And what about the adults around them? Do we feel sympathy for a child with an unfortunate background, or do we hold that child responsible for what she or he does? These questions don’t have easy answers, and Gerhardsen doesn’t pretend that they do.

The novel is told from several perspectives. There’s Sjöberg’s, there’s Petra Westman’s, and there are perspectives from several people involved in the original events. Readers who prefer only one point of view will notice this. Readers will also notice that one of the perspectives is that of the murderer (no, it’s not in italics). Readers who are tired of psychopathic serial killers who kill for shock effect or some other bizarre reason will be pleased to know that this killer isn’t exactly like that.

That said though, readers will want to know that there is real violence in this novel, and some of it is ‘on stage.’ Speaking strictly personally, I’ve read worse, as the saying goes. But the violence is not for the faint of heart, and readers who prefer their violence ‘off stage’ may want to peek through their fingers in a few places.

The novel takes place in the Hammerby section of Stockholm, and Gerhardsen places the reader there both in terms of geography and in terms of cultural life. That said, the incidents that take place could happen almost anywhere, and that makes them all the more unsettling.

The Gingerbread House is a detailed police procedural that features a close and sometimes disturbing look at the impact of past events on the here and now. It features a fairly cohesive team that balances deep dedication to work with a respect for the importance of personal time, and takes place in a distinctive Stockholm context. But what’s your view? Have you read The Gingerbread House? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 9 February/Tuesday 10 February – The Cornish Coast Murder – John Bude

Monday 16 February/Tuesday 17 February – China Trade – S.J. Rozan

Monday 23 February/Tuesday 25 February – A Nice Quiet Holiday – Aditya Sudarshan


Filed under Carin Gerhardsen, The Gingerbread House

32 responses to “In The Spotlight: Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House

  1. Yet another author I’ve never come across – where do you find them all? Sounds intriguing – and nice to know the cops aren’t all mavericks. On the whole I find female Nordic authors more to my taste than males, which is odd really, because outside Nordic crime I’m never terribly aware of the author’s gender while reading.

    • FictionFan – That’s really interesting that you notice an author’s gender difference for Scandinavian crime fiction, but not for others. I will say, in a similar vein, that I think you might like the fact that the female characters in this novel are not all of a type. Some are strong, positive characters – some aren’t. None, though, is a helpless ‘damsel in distress’ type though. And I couldn’t agree more about the ‘maverick cop’ stereotype. Not to say there couldn’t be such people, but I really think it’s very unusual in real life. And in this novel, the cops fairly generally go by the proverbial book. And where do I find these authors? Consider it turnabout … 😉

  2. This does sound like my cup of tea – and I echo FictionFan’s comment – how do you manage to find all those authors I’ve never heard of and add them to my groaning wishlist?

    • Marina Sofa – In my opinion (your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary), this novel gives the reader some interesting things to think about (can’t say more without spoiling it). There’s some brutal violence in it, but that aside, Gerhardsen raises some fascinating questions. I hope that if you do read it, you’ll enjoy it. And I’ll say to you what I said to FictionFan – turnabout 😉

  3. I seem to say the same things every week when you do one of these spotlight posts Margot; this does sound like one I’d enjoy!! I love the past impacting on the present in storylines and this one sounds like it fits that bill perfectly I also now prefer solid policemen in my police procedurals, again you give this a positive… A great post and a book I will be looking out for.

    • Cleo – That’s definitely a major element in this novel: people’s past actions and their consequences for the present day. And I’m with you about police characters. With a few exceptions, I think I like them best when they’re functional. Not that they can’t have issues or eccentricities, as most of us do. But I will admit I like the fact that these cops manage their challenges without constantly getting drunk, high, or whatever. If you do read this, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  4. Patti Abbott

    Another new-to-me author, How do you do it?

  5. Still not tried so many Scandinavian thrillers but you make it sound very appetising – thanks Margot 🙂

  6. An intriguing writeup, and I do like a book where you’re trying to work out the connections between the victims to find the motive. I’ve never heard of the author, but I think this has to go on the list….

    • Moira – That was actually one aspect of the novel that I thought was done rather well. The reader knows about the original event, but the sleuths don’t. So it is interesting to see how they work out what links the victims. And I won’t spoil the story, but I thought that they way they work it out was rather clever.

  7. Clarissa Draper

    I like how realistic the book is. It deals with many serious themes. Thanks for the review.

    • Clarissa – I thought that about the book too – that it’s realistic in a lot of ways. At least for me, it’s the fact that you could imagine some of the things in the novel really happening that makes it unsettling.

  8. I have really enjoyed reading this authors work – this one is particular, she has a way of introducing social issues into the script without hitting you over the head with them.

  9. I’m another one, Margot wondering about another author I hadn’t heard of and now want to add to my TBR. That’s you and Carol both added books today! Thanks for a great review. 🙂

  10. I like police procedural, especially when they don’t fall into the cliche traps, like a cop who puts his job before his family. Those have been done to death!

  11. Sounds very interesting. Amazingly, when I looked the book up on Goodreads, I found that my husband had recommended this to me 2 years ago. And I have never followed up on that. Unfortunately I have a lot of Scandinavian books in my TBR pile already. I am way behind in that area.

    • Tracy – Oh, that’s so interesting that you’ve heard about this one both from your husband and me. I know all about groaning TBRs, but if you do get a chance to read this one, I’ll be interested in what you think of it. And I don’t even want to think about how far behind I am in my reading…

  12. Col

    interesting book, never heard of book or author before, but I’ll stick with my lot for now thanks.

  13. Thanks, Margot. Sounds really interesting. I’ve ordered it and will let you know what I think.

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